I’m starting to prepare for a professional conference presentation later in the year (of which more later in other posts), and here is my first baby step to develop my craft, build up some confidence, and to fine-tune the material.
The following is not a transcript, but the fuller written notes of a networking talk delivered at the Expert Circles Entrepreneur’s Lunch in Ipswich on Monday 15th August.
The past, present and future of communication technologies
Everyone can communicate, it’s what humans do. And, you’ve probably been doing it quite successfully all of your life. I don’t just mean talking, but also listening, sharing information and ideas, persuading, collaborating, working in teams, educating, writing, drawing and demonstrating. You also probably do all this with a wide range of people of different ages, backgrounds, cultures and knowledge.
Unfortunately, everything has changed – and technology is to blame!
I’ll let you into a secret, IT and computing, especially in a commercial environment, is mostly about communication between humans, some technical and some not. This means that IT teams and projects themselves are not immune from the impact of new communication technologies, in fact we seem to delight in making a whole set of previously straightforward tasks more complicated. This will come as no surprise to anyone!
Before I look at some specific challenges and offer some tips to make the best use of communication technologies, here is a bit of history.
A bit of history
Homo Sapiens and our ancestors have been developing and refining our communication skills for millions of years*. We have finely tuned inter-personal skills, perfect for communicating with family members and small communities face-to-face. However, in a mere evolutionary blink of an eye we now have to learn new ways of communicating, overcome new barriers, and even unlearn acquired skills. Let’s look at some revolutionary communication technologies as case studies.
(*Ed. to be more accurate our family, or genus, Homo evolved 2.5 million years ago with the Homo Sapiens a newcomer some 200,000 years ago).
Starting with the humble telephone, a technology that allowed people to talk immediately over large distances, at the time a shocking and magical idea.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Arthur C. Clark
Typical of such paradigm shifts, it took a while before potential uses and benefits were really appreciated, but at what cost? Gone are the nuances of non-verbal communication and the engagement of all of our senses that personal contact gives us. Psychologists can argue about the detail and percentages (the frequently quoted 7/38/55 percentage split for words/vocal/body language is disputed), but I think we can agree that being present can provide a richer and more focused transfer of information from the sender to the receiver. More complicated still, business meetings now routinely take place across different countries and different time zones. Whole teams work remotely and virtually, redefining what ‘working together’ means.
The first ever telephone conversation in 1876 was allegedly a request by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant in another room:
Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.
But telephones are only the start of the gradual degradation of the value of being present and communicating clearly.
Keeping it simple
And what of the shiny new Internet nearly 100 years later? The first electronic message sent over the internet – or rather its predecessor ARPANET – was in 1969 from the UCLA campus in California to Stanford was “Lo”. This was not some casual hippy greeting, the system crashed part-way through “Login”.
With the best intentions new technology normally adds non-human barrier(s) between sender and receiver [systems], human or otherwise. For every layer or component in complex systems there is more that can go wrong and the potential for loss or corruption of information. There is also the added problem that electronic communication and storage is vulnerable to sabotage and malicious interference. Cyber security is a huge growth industry.
One of Murphy’s technology laws is;
New systems generate new problems.
Is anybody out there?
The first Skype message in 2003 was ‘Tere, kas sa kuuled mind?’…you can be forgiven for not understanding this as its Estonian for “Hello, can you hear me?”
It always helps if the person or people on the other side of the conversation can hear you and understand you, and that includes the quality of the line (any medium/channel), language and cultural barriers. and the inevitable jargon that most of us indulge in.
hlp iv lst my vwls!
The last anecdote for now is the first ever tweet sent in 2006 by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, ‘Just setting up my twttr’ (‘Twttr’ was subsequently renamed to Twitter). In my opinion Twitter’s self-imposed brevity of 140 characters, Instant Messaging (IM) and texting have responded to a broader cultural change…not the other way around.
Increasingly business communication is becoming shorter (less wordy), more informal, sometimes lacking in depth and clarity – except in highly regulated, security- or safety-critical applications. More competition in global markets, faster product development and the Agile movement have further contributed to the reduced documentation, which is often deemed to be unproductive, unnecessarily bureaucratic and redundant.
In IT projects we now often communicate ideas and requirements as simple narratives or stories. Low-fidelity mock-ups, and iterative prototyping (show-and-tells), have replaced detailed specification and design documents in a lot of cases.
Here is a list of some other fascinating technology firsts from Yahoo Finance.
To re-cap, good communication, meaning the successful exchange of instructions, information and persuasive argument requires:
- Communication modalities and styles, that is, audio, visual, words, pictures and demonstrations/kinaesthetics
- An effective and reliable communication medium
- A common understanding between all parties
And in all but the most trivial cases:
- An appropriate way to document or record the message
So what can us information workers do with our ancient hunter-gatherer communication skills and our Homo Sapiens cognitive skills to better take advantage of the 21st century communications technologies and new ways of working?
Old is the new new
Here are some old-world adaptations to these new world problems:
- Choose the right tools and technology, suitable to the situation and the people involved. In fact it behoves us all to choose from as many tools and techniques as possible lest we fall into the trap of only having a hammer and thinking that every problem is a nail!
- Invest in learning, and that doesn’t mean formal structured education, it means knowing as much about your craft as possible. Investigate what Google+, the Cloud, Twitter, Snapchat, Wikis, voice and video conferencing/streaming can do for you and your customers, partners and colleagues.
- Establish or learn the rules and protocols. for example, understand the purpose, the etiquette, and the expected conduct of the communication, whether it is a meeting, an email or a telephone conversation, in the same way that purely electronic data communication needs rules to work effectively.
- Be flexible; if the technology lets you down or the situation changes you need to be able to think on your feet and find alternatives.
- Remove unnecessary jargon; and don’t be embarrassed to question any terms or acronyms used by others. Remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes?
- Mix it up a bit; use pictures and diagrams, hand-write meeting notes, use real learning aids and artefacts even if an electronic version is available. People often learn and respond well to different stimuli.
- And lastly, embrace what the technology can do for you and not bemoan what it can’t.
In summary, tools and technologies should be your servants.
We all inherently know what good effective and efficient communication looks like, that’s what we are programmed to do, it’s in our DNA.
Thank you for your time and attention. Any questions?
(c) 2016 IT elementary school