One of the key indicators of fluency with a language or a medium is the knowledge of what tool to use when. Should we meet face-to-face more often for project meetings, or should we use video conferencing? Should we use email to collaborate, or a wiki? Should we market our product in broadcast media, or via YouTube? In thinking about these sorts of questions recently, it occurred to me that there are two questions that might help people think through these situations.
The first is whether the situation calls for a higher or lower level of control over messages and on how people act on them.
Forms of communication like one-on-one conversations, email, and telephone calls, for example, provide more control. Other forms of communication like wikis, Twitter and large-group conversations, on the other hand, generally allow for less control. It is important to say here that more control is not always better. While control can increase predictability, it can also kill creativity and innovation.
The second question people need to ask themselves is whether the situation will benefit more from a virtual or a physical approach.
Personal thoughts, cultural memes, or blogs, for example, exist on the virtual end of the spectrum, while a group meeting, a printed letter, or a physical product are heavily physical in nature. As with the level of control, this decision has trade-offs either way. Physical approaches are generally slower and more costly, while virtual approaches may lack richness, perceived authenticity, etc.
As an example, let’s consider the challenge that many organizations are facing right now: email inbox overload. In our recent research we found this to be a pervasive problem. In fact, a friend recently told of “..a recent project [that] took 600+emails 100+ attachments to produce just 6 documents.”
So what is the problem in these situations? Choice of an appropriate medium is probably a significant part of it. Though email provides for a lot of control over messaging, the trade-off is that everyone’s email inbox is littered with unnecessary messages. So while the choice of a virtual medium (email) over a physical one (flying people around the country) was clearly a good one, it still may not have been the best primary medium to use for the task. A private wiki or a Google doc might have allowed the team to work collaboratively on the same document, without a constant barrage of emails, saving them many hours and the stress associated with inbox overload. For a simple explanation of why this is the case, please take a look at this graphical comparison of email vs. wiki collaboration. If you are not familiar with wikis or Google docs, please take a quick look at this video, and this one.
The trade-off for moving from email to another medium for this group would be some loss of control. Working collaboratively on a wiki or Google doc forces the project lead to relinquish some measure of control. It also exposes the collaborators to a much greater degree of real-time openness with each other, which requires a greater degree of innovation fluency if the collaboration is to be successful. To spur even more innovation, these folks could relinquish even more control by creating a public wiki or doc that would allow people outside of their workgroup to participate in editing the document.
As people in an organization become more digitally fluent, they tend to more easily find the combinations of media that are most effective for their context.
Note: For anyone interested in a more detailed exploration of how people tend to choose between different forms of media, try searching for “media richness theory” on Google Scholar.