The Spectrum of Electronic Communication Immediacy (or Lack Thereof)
1 Sep 2014
4 minute read

      For as long as I’ve been working, email has been an ever-present communications tool, loved and hated, misunderstood and abused, carrier of unnecessary work.

      And for as much discussion has been poured into how to better manage and/or reduce or eliminate email, scant few organizations have been able to make much headway on this front. Not that it’s impossible. There are alternative tools available that could be used to reduce email. However, these tools require a cultural shift along with guidelines on usage.

      This is my vision for how a company could add a single additional type of communications tool to their arsenal to not only cut down on email traffic, but improve overall communications as well.

      The Core Problem

      Before we get to that, we must define what the core problem of electronic communication is, what I am deeming the ‘immediacy requirement’. The immediacy requirement is dictated, but not explained, by the sender of the communique, who inexplicably expects the recipient to understand that requirement and respond accordingly.

      Obviously, this is doomed to failure, and results in follow-up emails, texts, IM, phone calls and hallway conversations that question the recipient’s work ethic and/or communications links (e.g. “Didn’t you get my email?”).

      There needs to be a simple set of rules or guidelines that is common to everyone in your organization that lays out what the immediacy requirement is, given a certain tool.

      For example, should email require a response within 5 minutes, 5 hours or 5 days? Should you be able to send someone an IM and have them drop everything they’re doing in order to respond to you? Of course, different personalities will have different, sometimes strong, opinions as to what the ‘correct’ response is. It doesn’t matter; your *organization* should ensure everyone follows the same guidelines. More or less. And yes, there are exceptions for everything.

      Tools/Vectors and the Immediacy Spectrum

      What follows is my personal take on what the *spectrum* of immediacy is and what comm tools would fit the bill.

      From least to most immediate:

      Email: Depending on the content, immediacy requirements on emails should be counted in days, quite possibly weeks at some organizations. Email is appropriate for the longer-format memo-styled comm.

      Persistent Group Chat (e.g.: Slack/Hipchat/private IRC): This is the tool type that I hinted at earlier. It is in some use already across the corporate world, but one that more organizations would do well to adopt. It is excellent for chatter that larger groups may need to see and/or refer to later on. Unless you’ve directly addressed another person (e.g. @john) or required that people monitor certain rooms/channels, this should also be counted in days.

      Instant Messenger (IM): Here we start getting into minutes between responses, although many organizations treat it unconsciously as an immediate comm channel. Don’t. You already have a few other methods for that. An additional use case may be as a ‘insert and forget’ type messaging system especially for those recipients who are more apt to read and respond to IMs (vs emails or group chat).

      SMS/Test messages: A close follow-up to phone/video calls. Useful if you can’t reach someone on the phone.

      Phone or video calls: These should preferably be scheduled in advance, but completely on the table for emergency-type situations. If you want to get more granular, video would precede phone calls.

      In person: while true that this is not electronic, it should always be considered as a possible means of communication. Sometimes nothing else works as well, as non-verbal communication is what humans use predominantly.

      Additional Points to Consider

      Communication != documentation. In other words, don’t regard a series of IMs or even an email thread as documentation. If it should be documented, put it into your agreed-upon central store of docs (e.g. a wiki, a knowledge base, etc.).

      Email is used in an intrusive, interruptive manner. Ideally, you should only check it a handful of times per day, but corporate cultures everywhere has turned email into an always-on, must-respond-now monster that sucks up time and productivity. Let me repeat: email should not be considered an immediate form of communication. Verbal communication is.

      Incidentally, when your people start talking about their overflowing inboxes and unread messages, either it’s a sign that email is failing you as a communications tool and/or they have too much work on their plates.

      Lastly, before you shoot off your next email or IM, choose your immediacy requirement (or rather your immediacy desire), and then pick your form of communication wisely. The second step is to stick to it. Don’t follow up that communication with another one minutes later (e.g. an IM to say you just sent an email). This is inefficient and worse, annoying to the recipient.

      Set your expectations correctly, and remember that you can’t reach everyone all the time!