02 July 2010

Lean or Rich Communication Tools

Communication strategies get more complicated as we have access to more variety in the means of communication.

I remember Summer evenings sitting on the front porch of my grandparent's home in Hagerstown, Indiana when I was a child. We talked with each other and caught up on community news and happenings as neighbours strolled past and stopped in for a cold glass on homemade lemonade. Another option in later years was Granny's drab cream coloured phone hanging on the wall in the kitchen. She did get a super long cord for it so she could cook and talk or pass the phone to Grandpa while he sat at the kitchen table.

Looking people in the eye as we talked on the porch gave us many clues as to deeper meaning in the words they were saying. Listening to a voice on the phone cut down the visual cues, but we still had tone of voice, pauses and real time communication.

The implications for organisations, whether corporate, social or familial, are significant. There are huge advantages in using Doodle to organise an event, Google Wave to collaborate on a project or Skype to actually see and hear the person to whom you are speaking. What of the limitations and do we keep those limitations in mind as we make the most of these communication tools?

Much of what we do today is considered lean communications, not so rich as that which is accompanied by visual and auditory cues. I first heard about this term, lean communication, via an interview of Kevin Rockmann on Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon programme on July 1.

Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
recently published a study by Kevin Rockmann and Gregory Northcraft that put more than 200 undergraduate students through two hypothetical teamwork exercises, some face to face and others through e-mail and videoconferences. Face-to-face contact yielded the most trust and cooperation while e-mail netted the least, with videoconferences somewhere in between

Gregory Northcraft says high-tech communication strips away the personal interaction needed to breed trust, a key ingredient in getting workers to pull together and carry their share of the load.

"Technology has made us much more efficient, but much less effective," he said. "Something is being gained, but something is being lost. The something gained is time and the something lost is the quality of relationships. And quality of relationships matters."

Relationships that build trust are critical when workers band together on projects, said Northcraft, a professor of executive leadership who earned a doctorate in social psychology and studies workplace collaboration, motivation and decision-making.

He says the findings suggest that businesses should balance use of e-mail with face-to-face meetings to "recharge" relationships and the trust they instill.

"Physical contact has a half life," Northcraft said. "When people meet face to face, they can leverage that over a pretty lean communication medium for a while and the relationship will not degrade. But after a while, they need to get back together face to face to recharge the trust, the engagement and the loyalty in the relationship."

While much of this is common sense, it is good to be reminded that our technology accomplishes some things well, other things not so well. As communication technology becomes more accessible, more normal, more taken for granted, especially by younger generations, I wonder if the understanding of what should and shouldn't be communicated via text or email will shift? Is it advisable to carry on deeply emotional conversations via text or email, lean forms of communication where the most helpful relational cues are missing?

When distance precludes face-to-face meetings, workers can foster relationships through Skype and videoconferences, telephone calls or even by making e-mails more engaging, such as using graphic icons that add personality, Northcraft says.

The findings offer a lesson for personal relationships as well as the workplace. There's nothing so satisfying to a loved one than a personal visit or a handwritten note, adding the smell, the touch, the personal element that fuels the emotional aspect of relationship.

See other articles by Rockmann & Northcraft.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Re: Communication. "One can't read body language if one can't see the body."
Body language, including the eyes, is a very important part of communication. Much of what we "read" when communicating is on a subconscious level. We don't even know we are "reading" a person as we communicate, we just include the information in our overall perception of how the other party is feeling about the communication. Obviously, this is only possible if the other party is within visual and auditory range.....a one on one conversation, or in a group discussion.