Many of us have heard the lamentations of the entertainment and advertising industries as they try to cope with the new age of entertainment. In the old days the entire family would gather around the TV at a specific time on Sunday night and watch the Ed Sullivan Show or something similar, with all its commercials, then talk about the show at work or school the next day. But today the industry must deal with video streaming, binge-watching, live tweeting, PVR ad skipping, and ad blockers. The audience watches the programs at different times, so it is difficult to create a buzz.
But that is not the only industry that has changed with the advent of new technologies. Many dimensions of management in all industries have changed as well -- but the changes have crept up on us because there is no single industry group to point it out. Think about management in the days of the Ed Sullivan show. The boss would call a weekly, in-person meeting of all the staff. Someone would take notes of the action items and share it via a memo or email. Staff members would sort out details with individual meetings in offices or hallways. And the boss' work would get done.
Significant Changes in Our New Workplace
Those good old days are gone. Most of us have experienced major changes in our new workplace, including:
- More Global. Team members are up to 12 time zones away from each other, so travel for face-to-face meetings is time-consuming and it is difficult to find a good conference call time during waking hours for all. Some team members speak English as a second language so find it difficult to jump into the middle of hot verbal debates.
- Remote Team-mates. Even in the case of people working in the same country, team members are often in different locations. They may be in different cities or some may be working from home. It has been a long time since I heard of someone doing a "corporate move" for a new job, and instead more people choose to stay in place with their families, and work remotely.
- Flatter Organizations. Organizations are flatter and many projects are run by a team of equals. In the old days the boss would lay down the instructions. Today organizations want project teams to arrive at a consensus.
- More Partnerships. Frequently project teams members work for different organizations. That removes much of the hierarchy of the past, and requires real collaboration. Teams might consist of people in companies that formed an alliance, representatives from vendors, or contract staff. Who's the boss?
- Multiple Roles and Tasks. Jobs used to more straightforward. Workers would have a handful of clearly-defined tasks to complete. Today most individuals are involved in a wide range of projects and task forces, playing the roles of leader, member, contributor, or observer on different teams. That complicates the job of communications on those teams because the needs differ widely.
With these changes alone the old fashioned ways of communications are no longer effective. Face-to-face meetings and even remote conference calls are difficult to do. Email was once effective and is still a universal solution -- but has now become a torrent of unorganized information with people talking at each other rather than iterating on earlier work, recipients forced to sort through all the emails to associate them with projects and urgency, threads that go 25 or more levels deep, topics shifting without changing the subject line, inconsistent management of "to:" and "cc:" among team members, and many other well-recognized problems.
How many times have you been handed an action item buried deep in the email chain that has the subject heading "lunch on Friday?" Or how many times have you seen someone email a PowerPoint presentation to 20 team members and say "Please share your thoughts", only to result in a flurry of conflicting email responses ranging from comments about slide 5 to others simultaneously marking up their version of the deck and sharing competing versions back with others.
The challenge is many senior executives today had their biggest successes in past decades and the implications of these workplace changes have crept up on them slowly. They have missed out on a whole generation of communications tools and norms. Now what should they do?
Need for New Forms of Communications
The good news is that with the new communications tools available today, team members can effectively communicate on their own time in context to collaborate and iterate on ideas. Some examples include:
- Comment within topic areas on Slack or a similar messaging app. Today it is possible to set up many communications channels for a project, and have the discussions take place in context. Users can set up different alerts, so it is easy to get a pop-up for important channels (such as ones they lead) and monitor progress more casually in less-important channels. This gives the control to the recipient, which is where it should be. It also avoids topics drifting within an email thread. This approach also makes it possible to invite new team members to a project and expose them to the complete discussion history -- rather than forwarding them a stack of unintelligible email links.
- Make edits, additions, and comments on a collaboration document. It is far more productive for a team member to make a proposal within collaboration tools such as Google Docs, Google Slides, or a wiki -- then have other team members make edits, additions, or comments within the draft -- at the point where it is relevant. This enables a team to iterate or build on their ideas without having to join a meeting. It avoids members tossing fragments at each other through email, often losing the connection to who, what, or where in the prior note they are referring. Say goodbye to cryptic email messages that follow robust back-and-forth exchanges and say something like "I disagree with you. I don't think that is going to work in our case."
- Comment within a project management tool. It is also good practice to organize projects using tools such as Asana or Trello, then share ideas, progress, and commentary within the appropriate tasks. This puts the comment in context, builds on the work done to date, moves tasks forward without meetings, and enables inclusion of new team members.
Most of these tools work on smartphones, tablets, and all the desktop operating systems. There is no reason to be out of touch at any time of day. Many of the tools (among many others) are linked to each other, so they can facilitate discussions across teams and tools. And some of the tools, such as Glip and Zoho combine several of the collaboration elements in one.
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So the next team you receive an email thread on a collaborative project that confuses more than it illuminates, just think back to the days of the Ed Sullivan Show and remember the sender may come from simpler times. Then tell them "send me your comments via our collaboration tools." It will work out better for all.