Posted by: kevinliebl | May 26, 2010

Have we Mastered, or Lost, the Art of Communication?

The Art of CommunicationI’ve been thinking a lot lately about all of the different tools we have to communicate.  The following is a sample of what I use on a daily basis:

  • Texting
  • Email
  • Social Media – Blogging, Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc…
  • Webinars, Podcasts
  • Instant Messaging
  • Video (Skype)
  • Telephone
  • Face-to-face meetings

I find it interesting that people are so passionate about their favorite methods and choose to ignore others.  Is has always seemed to me that each tool has a purpose, but can also be abused.  There are people in my office who absolutely refuse to use instant messaging because they believe that it is a “waste of time”.  Others are so passionate about it, they use it throughout the entire day.  Some of these decisions are generational and others are personal.  Either way, I find it an interesting phenomenon.

My son pleaded with my wife and me for a year before we agreed to get him a cell phone.  It seemed like an extra expense that we didn’t need, but my wife convinced me that it would make her life easier given school, sports, play-dates and all of the driving back and forth that she needs to perform.  The ironic part is that when I review his statements, he is averaging less than 50 minutes of talk time a month.  However, he is texting upwards of 3000 times a month.  It is no secret that teenagers text far more than they talk.

At work, I am on my computer 80% of the time.   I wrote a prior blog where I described that my son seriously thought that I “did email for a living”.  One could argue that I do…  However, I find that I am far more efficient communicating in a virtual world with people all over the world through email, instant messaging, online blogging, chat-rooms and other forms of communication than I ever could face-to-face or over the phone.  A decade ago, I was traveling 4 out of 5 days a week.  Now, I rarely travel.  I can also remember a time when I wore a headset and was on the phone almost all day long.  Now, I am on the phone probably 10% of the day.  Phone communication has been replaced primarily with email and instant messaging.

There is a pretty strong argument that virtual communication is creating alienation.  Business relationships that are created out of face-to-face communication are being replaced with electronic communication.  The ability to form strong bonds by listening to each other’s stories about their weekends, their children’s sporting events and summer vacations are being replaced with short emails and text messages.  However, you cannot argue with the efficiency of these tools.

Tom Peters published a book in 1982 entitled “In Search of Excellence” where he introduced the term MBWA, or “management by wandering around”.  Essentially, it argued that you need to be out of your office and engaged in the business to be an effective manager.  Almost 30 years later, many of us find ourselves “managing through a keyboard” (MTAK).  It is far easier to instant message a colleague in the office next to me to find out when the next board meeting will be held, than to get up, walk over and spend 15 minutes in small-talk to get the same answer.  However, it causes us to sit in our offices all day long without nearly as much human interaction.

It wasn’t that long ago, that I would spend 80% of my day in the corporate conference room sitting in meetings.  Now I spend 80% of my day at my desk and 20% of my day in meetings.  Again, I believe that my efficiency has increased, but am I missing data that I would have normally picked up if I had called more face-to-face meetings?  The answer is probably, “yes”.

When I think of all the forms of communication at my disposal, I can’t help but believe that the secret is in “balance”.  As my wife constantly reminds me, “everything in moderation is usually the best answer”.  In this case I believe that she is right.

Action Item:  Explore and learn the tools that are available to you.  Determine how to maximize your efficiency by creating the right balance.  Each tool has a unique benefit, and when applied appropriately can provide significant value.  However, remember it takes an effort to ensure that the tools are being used appropriately and not being abused.

As my son would say, “THX 4 LSTNG 2 MI POV. WIL RIT MOR NXT WK – L8R”

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Responses

  1. First a quick comment: everything in moderation – including moderation. Meaning sometimes you just go all-out.

    I think the growth of online communications (from text to email to IM) can help business communication by focusing on the task at hand. The length restrictions CAN help clarity, as long as the writers can actually create short, clear sentences.

    Because the communication is short and non-interruptive people are more willing to communicate more often and about smaller (not necessairly trivial) things. No longer do you save up a bunch of points before walking to someone’s office for an in-person discussion. And no walking to their office for a 10-minute interruption with a single question.

    On making a personal connection – I agree that this can no longer be a side-affect of face-to-face communication. A leader/manager must specifically plan for this. For example, other social media tools can allow people to get to know each other better (from Wiki to Facebook fan page to fun tweets) and, where possible, face-to-face events can offer a better focus on making a personal connection.

    Closing unrelated comment: With full-keyboard phones becoming ubiquitous, some of the leet-speak is going away. Go ahead and type the extra letters to get ‘next’ or ‘week’.

  2. I keep wondering if all this digital communication vs. “pressing the flesh” ultimately creates an electronic callus in both business and personal relationships. We have created a shield of pixels between us and our colleagues and friends. Eventually we may have to come to terms with whether unplugged contact has value and/or relevance.

  3. It sounds to me like you have some “driver”personality in you. Drivers can take information in a direct way and do not need the chit-chat to balance their day. Other personality types may find it more challenging to get only the answers they need and may require more face-to-face contact throughout the day.

    • Scott,

      This is a very good point. I believe we all communicate differently. Some people thrive on concise information. Others need more “color” wrapped around the data. I may not be very objective on this. However, I think I am somewhere in the middle. I am a very social person, so I love the 1:1 sessions. However, there are other times where I simply need the “yes/no” answer. Again, this is why I believe “balance” is the key. There are no simple answers. At times a simple “text message” works great. At other times, an offsite one-on-one lunch is more appropriate. Use all the tools at your disposal and find the balance.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Kevin


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