Toward resilience in communication (the end of cc)

If you saw this post tweeted in your twitter stream, odds are you didn’t click on it. And if you’ve got an aggressive spam filter, it’s likely that many people who have sent you email are discovering you didn’t receive it. "Did you see the tweet?" or "did you get my email?" are a tax on our attention. Resilience means standing up in all conditions, but in fact, electronic communication has gotten more fragile, not less.

We wait, hesitating, unsure who has received what and what needs to be resent. With this error rate comes an uncertainty where we used to have none (we're certain of the transmission if you’re actively talking on the phone with us and we know if you got that certified mail.) It's now hard to imagine the long cc email list as an idea choice for getting much done.

The last ten years have seen an explosion in asynchronous, broadcast messaging. Asynchronous, because unlike a phone call, the sender and the recipient aren’t necessarily interacting in real time. And broadcast, because most of the messaging that’s growing in volume is about one person reaching many, not about the intimacy of one to one. That makes sense, since the internet is at its best with low-resolution mass connection.

It's like throwing a thousand bottles into the ocean and waiting to see who gets your message.

Amazon, eBay, Twitter, blogs, Pinterest, Facebook–they are all tools designed to make it easier to reach more and more people with a variation of faux intimacy. And this broadcast approach means that communication breaks down all the time… we have mass, but we've lost resiliency.

Asynchronous creates two problems when it comes to resiliency. First, it’s difficult to move the conversation forward because the initiator can’t be sure when to report back in with an update. Second, if some of the data changes in between interactions, it’s entirely likely that the conversation will go off the rails. If you send two colleagues a word processed doc and, while you’re waiting for a response, the file changes, it’s entirely possible that you’ll get feedback on the wrong file. Source control for any conversation of more than two people becomes a huge issue.

Your boss initiates a digital thread about an upcoming meeting. While two of the people are busy working on the agenda, a third ends up cancelling the meeting, wasting tons of effort because people are out of sync.

But asynchronous communication is also a boon. It means that you don't have to drop everything to get on a call or go to a meeting. Without the ability to spread out our project communication, we'd get a lot less done.

So, here we are in the middle of the communication age, and we’re actually creating a system that’s less engaging, less resilient to change or dropped signals, and less likely to ensure that small teams are actually contributing efficiently.  The internet funding structure rewards systems that get big, not always systems that work very well.

A simple trade-off has to be made: You can’t simultaneously have a wide, open system for communication and also have tight connections and resilience. Open and wide might work great for promoting your restaurant on Twitter, but it’s no way to ensure tight collaboration among the three or four investors who need to coordinate your new menu. 

As digital teamwork gets more important, then, team leaders are going to have to figure out how to build resiliency into the way they work. That might include something as simple as affirmative checkins, or more technical solutions to be sure everyone is in sync and also being heard. Someone sitting on a conference call and doing nothing but pretending to listen benefits no one.

Friends and family at Dispatch have built one approach to this problem, a free online collaboration tool that uses the cloud to create a threaded conversation built around online files, with redundancy and a conversation audit trail as part of the process. When someone speaks up, everyone can track it. When a file changes, everyone sees it. And only the invited participate.

It won’t be the last tool you’ll find that will address an increasingly urgent problem for teams that want to get things done, but it's worth some effort to figure this out. Tightly-knit, coordinated teams of motivated, smart people can change the world. It's a shame to miss that opportunity because your tools are lousy.