Organizations are created to serve a purpose. For schools, it is (ostensibly) to make people “smart.” We know, of course, that when systems are created, their purpose immediately changes to sustaining itself rather than fulfilling its purpose, but let’s ignore that for this post.
We who work in organizations complete tasks and solve problems that allow the organization to meet its function, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. One thing information technology professionals do is to provide and maintain systems that facilitate communication.
Google Workspaces is a familiar example. We can email, chat, videoconference, and share with individuals or groups. Despite the facts that these systems exist and function, they are available on all platforms and devices, and users receive training on how to use the tools, “ineffective communication” is still a problem in organizations.
Because communication is mediated through technology tools, it is reasonable to conclude that a new technology tool will solve the communication tools inside the organization. I expect readers can identify situations in which they heard things like “let’s all learn Slack, it’ll improve our communication” or “the transition to Microsoft Teams will solve our communication problems.” (This post isn’t intended to disparage any tool—I have used Slack and Teams effectively.)
When I hear a technology tool being promoted as the solution to our communication problems, I can reliably predict three things:
- The leader who is advocating the new technology is likely a very poor communicator.
- Money will be spent to replace existing capacity with devices that provide the identical capacity. The pile of money wasted to replace perfectly functional technology is likely to be sizable; the number of zeros on the price tag depends on the size of the organization, but it will be shockingly high to most members of the organization.
- Time and productivity will be lost to users learning how to use a new tool.
Communication difficulties arise from many factors few of which have anything to do with technology. Consider these realities of ineffective communication:
- Inarticulate speakers and writers. No matter the technology used, if one reads you message and thinks “what does this mean?” the problem is not the tool. Digital tools help those who have trouble with clear articulation; we all benefit from spellcheck, grammar checks, and other supports.)
- Inattentive listeners and readers. We are all “too busy.” We are all distracted by our other communication tools (turning away from an email because you hear a chat notification is very common). We are all distracted by folks stopping by our offices, classroom announcements, fire drills, and other real-life situations.
- Too much information. Information is not a problem we must address. In the deluge of messages, we all get today, separating the important ones from the unimportant is the challenge.
- Disregard for the audience. This obstacle to good communication can be either a false negative error or a false positive error. A false negative error occurs when a communicator concludes “they don’t need to hear this.” (I experienced this recently when a leader announced their resignation to a small group, but some of their direct reports learned of it when the opening was announced by the HR department.) A false positive occurs when the communicator believes the audience needs to hear a message when they do not. (Excessive CC’ing on emails and using reply all are the most familiar examples in the age of email.)
- Ignorance of tools and norms. Especially within interdependent groups, certain tools become the norm through the preferences of the members. (If you join my team, it is best if you are comfortable with group chats as that is how we connect most directly.) When outsiders join those groups, they must adapt to those practices and adopt the tools.
- Changing tools. One reality of the digital world is that tools change. Your favorite tools will the dropped from the suite; the familiar interfaces will change with the new version of the software. New tools will be added to the suite and folks will adopt them quickly while you ignore them.
Notice none of these obstacles to effective communication will be solved by new technology.
The rationale behind almost every initiative to transition to a new communication tool is grounded in the preferences of the leader. “We used the Outlook suite at my last school, so we should use it here.” The leader who makes such a recommendation demonstrates they are incapable of making the decision for two reasons. First, they cannot differentiate technology problems from other problems. Second, they do not understand the consequences of making bad decisions.