How to Pilot a New Communication Channel? Have Something to Say

December 10, 2007 at 11:27 am | Posted in Attention Management, collaboration, communication | Leave a comment

I initiated my attention management and information overload coverage because, in addition to my own research as an analyst, I am also service director for a group of analysts that cover communication, collaboration, and content management technology. Many of the technologies we talk about are relatively new and can be very useful in the right situations. But with information workers already feeling overloaded, every new communication channel or collaborative workspace starts with a strike against it since even a useful new tool just feels like one more thing to have to check. You have to spend attention to save attention. But risk aversion and a lack of attention to spend impels many information workers to ignore new tools and keep plugging away in the same way they always have.

Accordingly, IT organizations are often encouraged to go slow with any new communication or collaboration tool and pilot it to build consensus around its usefulness before rolling it out to the organization. Some tools do eventually gain grass roots support that way and go on to greatness in the annals of corporate history. But I want to propose a twist on that advice – to pilot new channels or workspaces when you have something major to apply them to. This could mean holding onto a new tool for 6 months or more if that’s what it takes. The idea is to immediately imprint its usefulness on the user the first time and to make its initial use unavoidable.

There is precedent for new communication channels only taking off when they have something to say. Take CNN and the Gulf War – CNN had been around for 10 years when the Gulf War started in the summer of 1990 and, according to Wikipedia, “catapulted the network past the “big three” American networks for the first time in its history, largely due to an unprecedented, historical scoop: CNN was the only news outlet with the ability to communicate outside Iraq during the initial hours of the American bombing campaign, with live reports from the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad by reporters Bernard Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett.” All of the news channels had improved communications capabilities that hadn’t yet been tested at that point, but CNN’s was the best (at 24 hours it was persistent and they had invested in good infrastructure, even if they underpaid their reporters). But it wasn’t until they had something to really say – an event – that people adapted to the new communication channel.

This applies to a new topic as well. I’ve given my presentation on “Which Tool to Use” twice now and both times a question was asked about whether an e-mail or similar communication should go out to announce the new guidance on which communication tool to use under given circumstances. The answer was a definite no – because the message would be ignored by so many people that it would strain the credibility of the sender and make future attempts to offer guidance more difficult. If the guidance is attached to another event of substance – such as announcing a new IM system or blog capability – then it has a better chance of being heard since it’s attached to a concrete event.

To offer a negative (and personal) example, some piece of software on my work PC has been giving off an alarm sound about twice a day. I’ll be sitting here and a “da-DING” sound comes out and … nothing happens. Nothing flashes, nothing comes up on the screen. I have no way to tell what application is trying to alert me. It’s as if a general announcement is randomly made every few hours saying “pay attention – check things”. It’s an alert with absolutely nothing to say. Debugging a “da-DING” is very difficult. And it’s quite annoying.

Applying this concept with a corporate reorganization would be a perfect opportunity to provide something to say to go along with introducing a new tool. Whether it’s a new intranet, wiki, President’s blog, or web conferencing, making it the primary source of new information about this important event that people care about can show how the new channel or workspace works when it really has something to convey. And it will be doing this better than the old tools could. Tying a new collaboration or communication tool to an event has many advantages over the standard piloting technique as the user sees the tool immediately applied in a useful situation.

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