Communication Technologies — A Decision Tree for Users

Communications Decision Tree
Part of my task in my current consulting assignment is to develop the client’s strategy for the use of e-learning and other communication tools. So I thought I’d update the decision tree I developed about three years ago. The result is shown above, and reflects the decision from the perspective of employees of larger organizations with a broad range of communication technologies at their disposal (or, in some cases, technologies that should be at their disposal). This assumes the organization has sufficient budget to invest in some commercial solutions, or to build their own.Some interesting observations about all this:

  • Despite the enormous amounts many large organizations spend on communications technologies, you can get just about all of these tools free or for very little money. The cost soars only when you centralize and move infrastructure ‘in’ from the Web to the internal organization. If you really have to do that for security reasons, be aware that you’re paying a massive price for it. On the other hand, if you’re doing it for ‘control’ reasons, you’re wasting your money. Just load all these free, web-based tools on each employee’s individual machine, and you’ve given them everything they need to communicate and collaborate powerfully with people inside and outside the organization, for a song.
  • The largest component of cost for any of these technologies is training and support. The typical large organization trains people exhaustively how to use technology tools, and then runs help desks for all the people who never took the training, or forgot it, or didn’t understand it. But if you give people the authority (and trust) to use communication technologies without centralized command and control, you should also give them the responsibility to learn to use them effectively. That means erring on the side of simple rather than powerful in the selection of tools, and expecting employees to
    1. use the built in help that comes with most tools
    2. practice using them until they become proficient (proficiency is a function of practice, and the amount of practice is a function of the perceived value of using the tool — so if the tools you provide are good and well-matched to employees’ needs, they’re going to be effectively used, and if they aren’t, no amount of training will make them otherwise), and
    3. teach each other to use them more effectively (these are, after all, communication tools, and users tend to talk about them when they’re using them, so the more they’re used the more peer-to-peer education will occur, and the less the need for centralized training).
With a peer-to-peer, self-help, and self-management approach to use of communication technologies, you should be able to slash how much you spend on centralized training and support. Then you can get your support people doing what front-line people can’t — fixing the stuff that’s broken.

What are the reasons we use faulty judgement, and use the wrong technology for communications?

  • Habit: We tend to use the tools we’re most familiar, comfortable, and in the habit of using, even when they’re not optimal. It takes some practice to train ourselves to think “what’s the best medium to use for this?” before we start or respond to a communication.
  • Personality: Some people (e.g. those who are shy about face-to-face meetings) hide behind e-mail even when it’s not the right medium. Sometimes it’s up to use, the recipients, not to get drawn into time-wasting e-mail threads, and walk down the hall or pick up the phone and talk it through in real time.
  • Physical layout: Having people who need a lot of face-to-face contact in offices far apart just to pay homage to the organization chart can obstruct the use of optimal communication technologies.
  • Ignorance: If people don’t know communication technologies are available, or if they’re hard to learn or remember how to use, or too complicated, they won’t be used.
  • Unavailability: Some organizations refuse to allow IM, blogs, wikis or free collaboration tools or ‘free’ tools that need to be downloaded to each PC, for security or centralized management reasons. Obviously, if the tools aren’t available, less appropriate tools have to be used.

I won’t get into the debate about which particular product is best-of-breed for each type of technology tool — this is a highly personal matter, and probably depends on the organization, industry and people. But what is clear is that these technologies are getting better and cheaper at the same time, and there is a long-overdue trend to more simplicity and intuitiveness in some new tools. Unfortunately, many large organizations remain in the communication stone age, locked into expensive, centrally managed, unfriendly, sub-optimal legacy technologies. The change to decentralized, free, and open tools is justtoo frightening for many heavily-invested organizations to contemplate.

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7 Responses to Communication Technologies — A Decision Tree for Users

  1. Ron Bell says:

    Dave,Great diagram.I’m curious what you would include in the “commercial groupware” category? The part of the tree where you say “if > 5 people, then commercial groupware not wiki” puzzled me.Ron

  2. Nauges says:

    Congratulations for a very fine job done.Most organizations are lost when they look at the options and go for what they know.As an example, explaining what is a Wiki to large organizations is very tricky.Thanks again,

  3. Fred Zelders says:

    Great job Dave. Thanks!It’s a pitty you did not consider podcasting, video podcasting and photo casting.Maybe in the next release? :-)

  4. Melissa Killeen says:

    Excellent explanation for why and when as well as how to use virtual communications.Can you answer me this? What “Free” web based communication tools are you speaking about?I use elluminate, and blackboard…all that have a

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