Re-Learning the Art of Impromptu Consultation

bill buxton Until about 15 years ago, the way people consulted with each other was through face-to-face meetings and visits (often impromptu, spur-of-the-moment occurrences). When that was impossible, people conversed by telephone, in real dialogue. Likewise, until about 15 years ago, the way people did research was to go and visit (or, if that was not possible, telephone) the library and talk to the information professional (IP) about what they needed, and then leave it to the IP to get it.

With the advent of ubiquitous e-mail and Internet access, that all changed and (yes I know I’m sounding like an old man) usually not for the better.

E-mail is rarely the best way to consult or converse with business colleagues. Too often, it has replaced more effective face-to-face and telephone real-time interactive conversations. Worse, it has allowed introverts and arrogant people who believe their time is more valuable than others’ to duck real-time consultation and conversation entirely. The result: degraded communication and decision-making.

Likewise, disintermediated Internet searching is rarely the most effective way to conduct research or to use non-IPs’ time effectively. Too often, it has allowed staff who are incompetent researchers to waste time browsing in the wrong places and cutting and pasting data into poorly-synthesized reports. The result: degraded research and analysis.

Organizations that are aware of the dangers of misuse of e-mail and of amateur Internet ‘research’ have tended to put in place restrictions on inappropriate use of these technologies, and processes to actively encourage face-to-face and real-time consultation and conversation and the reintermediation of research through re-skilled IPs. Ironically, this has resulted in information behaviours that substantially resemble those of pre-Internet days.

So what can be done to make effective use of technologies to:

  • enable people to ‘walk down the hall’ to talk with people who aren’t down the hall, and
  • enable reintermediated research by IPs even for people who are far from the corporate ‘library’?

Many years ago, when e-mail and Internet access were just becoming the norm in business, I met a guy named Bill Buxton (photo above), who was then with Alias Research. His passion was trying to make virtual ‘presence’ imitate, as much as possible, physical ‘presence’, to get the technology to adapt to our preferred information behaviours, instead of the other way around.

Bill’s mantra was:

Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the “things” that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name.

To that end, he had computer screens around a circular table in his office, each showing the head and shoulders, and the computer desktop, of one his meeting participants, so that virtual meetings were as analogous as possible to ‘real’ meetings. He had another screen above his office door with a picture of a door on it, that he could virtually ‘open’ or ‘close’ to signify whether he was, or was not, available for impromptu e-consultations and e-conversations.

It was a little hokey, but Bill was (and still is, in his new work) on the right track. Scheduling systems like Outlook are fine for events of an hour or more in length, but they don’t work well for just-in-time (unscheduled and unschedulable) consultations and conversation that last only a few minutes, yet which are critical to effective decision-making and knowledge exchange. Instant messaging has proven to be a useful stopgap (when users are practiced enough to use it effectively) but it is still too slow and lacking in the interactivity, body language and ability to ‘see’ what the others in the conversation are looking at, that quick face-to-face consultation permits.

What we could do is to add to IM an ability to:

  1. virtually ‘knock’, just-in-time, with an indication of how many minutes of the consultee’s time we need,
  2. simply conference others into the conversation, and 
  3. simply add voice, video and desktop-sharing capability to the IM conversation. 

Then IM, instead of having to carry the conversation, would be used mostly to set up the conversation, in a way analogous to the ‘knock on the door’ that is used to set up a face-to-face just-in-time conversation (“do you have 5 minutes to resolve a problem we’re having withÖ?”). Once the IM ‘knock’ was accepted, the participants would then ‘one-click’ into a VoIP conversation with video and desktop-sharing ‘attached’ to the resizeable IM pop-up window. Voilý, Bill’s virtual meeting, updated to the mobile, wireless workplace.

The same process could be used to consult with IPs about requests for research, and to review the research results with them.

The advantages over e-mail are increased effectiveness (because the conversation is real-time interactive and spoken, not written and asynchronous), and improved context (because of the addition of aural, visual and body-language ‘clues’).

This would not be difficult to do with today’s technology. Some organizations don’t permit or are unfamiliar with using IM, and others don’t (yet) have ubiquitous, wireless, audio and video transmission technologies. But these should not be difficult hurdles. This could be the rare case where if you built it they would come.

The greater challenge with such an invention would be behavioural: the resistance of introverts and some managers to being accessible just-in-time, the way all of us were (had to be) a generation ago. E-mail and e-scheduling software have helped make it socially acceptable to be unavailable without a prior appointment. The only way to overcome this is to demonstrate how a technology-enabled return to impromptu real-time consultation and intermediated research will improve work effectiveness, knowledge exchange, research and decision-making quality. We’ll have to show people what they’ve been missing, starting with some pilot groups who ‘get it’.

It will take time and practice to relearn this lost skill of accommodating requests for advice, information and insight on-the-fly. There were always people, in the days before e-mail, who abused this accommodation, and we’ll have to relearn how to say ‘no’ to them. There were always people who asked for five minutes and inarticulately blathered through thirty, and we’ll need to retrain them how to be precise and concise.

But it will be worth it. Ubiquitous e-mail and Internet access in organizations have created more problems than they’ve solved, and it’s time to rein them in to situations where their use is appropriate and effective. To do so, we’ll have to relearn someold tricks, like how to consult, converse, communicate and research, professionally. It can’t happen soon enough.

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5 Responses to Re-Learning the Art of Impromptu Consultation

  1. There are some good ideas in this one. Still, what is on-the-fly and just-in-time to some people, could be destructive to those at the receiving end.

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  3. Pearl says:

    Oh, you have spam up there.I love the idea of the virtual knock and how many minutes one expects it to take. Some nod to gestures would be nice too. Some versions of IM have a nudge or poke which I don’t like in name. It’s not exactly business-like. But perhaps something that would symbolize body language?

  4. Eric says:

    So true – but let’s take it a step farther. How does one establish and verify the credentials of the IP? Perhaps a combination rating system – something like a cross of Wikipedia and e-bay ratings could be utilized…

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