Interested to read in The Times that email is dead for many university students and that social media is becoming the standard tool for communicating with service providers. The article reports that students will use twitter to request information, make complaints or ask for support. Because the courses are expensive and expectations high students will expect responses on demand whatever time of day or night. Are we stretching social media beyond its power as informal conversation tool in much the same way as we often misuse email? Are we best using these media tools according to their specific strengths?
At the community centre I help run we dropped email as the primary way of communicating in favour of Yammer – a private business network modelled on the Facebook interface. The way Yammer and Facebook are structured seems significant in that there are a number of different styles of communication embedded in the one technology. Email is just not as flexible as it needs to be, using email we were being swamped with chit chat and losing important interactions.
There is an important requirement in any human interaction to know what the mode or style of the communication is. Is this a chat, a confidential counselling session, an open ideas session, a formal complaint, a critical negotiation. In our dispersed work environments the tools have replaced the opportunity for face to face engagement so the demands on the technology have grown.
It’s important to get off on the right foot – are we having a recorded conversation that might come back to haunt us or can we say what we like? The tools offer some clue – a twitter post should rarely be seen as a definitive last word, it is usually work in progress. A press release attached to an email might be more definitive, a blog is often a snapshot of someone’s progress in thinking. Using email for an unresolved conversation is quite often a bad idea when the “paper-trail” can be held against us.
So what’s my point. The medium determine the style of communication. We need to be aware of the nature, limits and expectations of the various forms of media. The strength of some good emerging platforms is that they can contain a range of communications styles within one container. Here I hold up two examples which I have been using with success. Both these are private networks which can link to external networks as required and accommodate a range of communication styles.
Yammer is a tool which can connect groups of people and handle a range of styles including broadcast, discussion, formal attachments and private discussion. I am using this at a community centre.
Basecamp is a project oriented tool which can contain formal documentation and accommodate associated discussion. I am using this in my schools projects.
I won’t discuss them in detail here but recommend you give them a try if you run a project with a dispersed team or have an organisation made up of many different groups.