Competing over organizational attention, dealing with alternative communication channels
1 August 2010
Morning. You've arrived at work and open your computer. The fear of a flood of emails waiting to erupt at you as soon as you click on the email icon is an experience shared by most organizations' workers.
It's ten AM. You are updated on all incoming mail and have skimmed through the new updates published in the organizational portal. You get up to make some coffee and see the board's proposal to fly to China. When you arrive back at your desk, you find a pamphlet waiting there, informing you of this coming summer's subsidized day camps. You continue working and towards the end of your work day, a pushed message from the CRM system pops-up and informs you of change you should be aware of.
You finish the day feeling relieved; one more email and your head will explode!
Understanding the challenge
Although it seems that the horrific scenario described above is an exaggeration, it is actually a realistic depiction of many workers' daily work experience.
Many factors in the organization compete over the workers' attention; in order for the workers to turn their attention to them, everybody tries shouting their message as loud as possible. This 'shout' is expressed in several on several levels. One level is the number of channels in which the message is distributed: who hasn't gotten an email followed by a communication from the notice board and (of course!) data from the portal? The second level relates to the manner in which the message is communicated: instead of an organized email or an orderly notice in the portal, a mail titled "New! New! New!" or "important updates in the ordering system is sent to workers. When clicked upon, the email reveals a whole new world of fonts of various colors and sizes.
Prima facie, all messages described in the example above are highly important. Some are relevant to the worker as an organizational professional while others relate to welfare and leisure. This situation can be analogized to a state in which everybody is talking at the same time, leading to a cacophonous experience. No one can hear anyone, let alone listen. This is true for organizations as well; as a worker, the amount of messages and channels makes it difficult to receive a complete update that may allow prioritizing work. The worker feels flooded in information and cannot receive any message due to the overload he has burdened with.
This challenge is reinforced by the great competition in the market and the need to present clients with innovative solutions in real-time. This require workers to master many skills. The knowledge, regardless of the channel in which it is managed, is the best tool for enhancing skills and empowering workers so that they can optimally handle the organizational reality.
Email: the fastest and most available communication channel through which tens of messages are sent. Its advantages include pushing the information to the worker, the ability to ensure the message was received and give the publishing party credit. Anyone sending a message is sure theirs is the most important message; their message will therefore definitely be read. This approach relieves the sender from responsibility; once the message is sent, the sender can forget they ever sent it.
Print: in many cases, despite the information existing in other channels, the sender still insists on producing a booklet or marketing newsletter. This redundant act is justified by the claim that "workers are more comfortable with the data being presented in front of them". Besides the workers being burdened by yet more material (now taking up desktop space), this is a waste of money and environmentally harmful.
Pushed messages: messages that appear during work in the functional system with no real connection to the act being performed at the time. This channel is easily operated and allows pushing a message but disturbs the worker's ongoing work process. Since it appears disconnected from the professional context, it may be perceived by workers as a nuisance to be ignored, similarly to sales messages that pop-up when surfing the web, which we close without reading.
Text Messaging: a new communication channel that has gained popularity due to its availability and accessibility. Its disadvantage is its cost, the limited number of characters, and the lack of ability to attach pictures/files or fashion the text.
Knowledge community/portal: a channel for communicating business information and social information according to target audience. This channel's advantages stem from displaying the entire data according to context and providing a full update on current issues as well as the workers' ability to retrieve knowledge by demand. The latter, in my opinion, is perceived as a disadvantage by some message-senders.
Implication for the organization
None of the above is meant to imply that one channel is better than the other; most information is important and all channels are legitimate message-conveying tools. However, this routine of mass message-sending via multiple channels has implications that should be considered:
An overload of messages wastes the workers' time and generates a sense of confusion. The workers don't know which message is more important and should be regarded first.
Flooding workers with messages is actually counter-productive. Workers become complacent and their stimulation threshold is raised. Next time, getting their attention and communicating new information will be harder.
When various factors are responsible for distributing the information and updating it in the various channels, one can predict a lack of synchrony between all channel. This might harm the workers' trust in the distributed information and send them searching for validation of the received data.
Overloading the mail servers by sending mails to the entire organization. Also, worker want to save emails so that they can access the sent information; since inboxes have a limited capacity, some of the information is deleted.
Loss of organizational memory: when professional data is distributed in various channels and not through one central channel, it is more difficult to retain and reproduce organizational history if necessary. This means that the wheel must be constantly reinvented, which requires many resources.
In 'Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performances And Results from Knowledge Workers' (2005), Thomas H. Davenport presents a study on satisfaction from communicating information via email. The findings show that most workers are satisfied from the use of this tool yet some find it less effective than other means of communication. Furthermore, 21% of the workers complain about data overload and 64% of them discard general emails that do not call for them personally to perform a task and skip over many emails without reading them. The last finding, regarding the discarding of many unread emails, is most problematic for an organization trying to optimally communicate messages.
We've described organizations' need to distribute information, a need that calls for pulling out the big guns and utilizing various communication channels. Yet for the worker to receive the information the organization wishes to convey, the message must be adapted to its effective channel.
The first recommendation is choosing a means of communication that suits each message according to several factors, including target audience, type of message, urgency of publication and the business-oriented harm that might be involved in distributing it via alternative channels. In the beginning, the analysis may be forced and seem artificial yet as these considerations are incorporated as a work process they will become routine.
The second recommendation is mapping the messages sent in the organization and the parties sending them. After analyzing your findings, it is recommended to characterize a distribution solution that suits the specific needs of these factors and messages. If necessary, do not rule out designated developments that will answer central needs.
Despite these two recommendation, it is important to note that if any development and implementation must include restraint. As the article states right at the top, many messages are like shouting as loud as possible. In order to manage messages better, all parties must show restraint and understand that their message is only one of many sent to organization workers. For the message to be communicated effectively, messages must be prioritized according to their importance to the organization and how they can benefit the organization.
In conclusion, prioritizing messages and adapting communication channels to the message will decrease the overload and increase satisfaction from a more efficient utilization of organizational resources.
Note: revisiting this article in 2018- the map of digital channels is much wider, having Whatsapp and various professional, organizational and personal social networks present a great deal of opportunities and threats. All has changed yet nearly nothing has changed as to the essence and the need to wisely manage the use of these digital channels.