The ups and downs of modern collaboration

December 09, 2019 Jutta Rahenbrock

“Big Daddy’s coming, so turn off all unnecessary lights!” Robert Bosch had just started out on one of his notorious inspection rounds through the company, and he was using it as an opportunity to put questions – not all of them pleasant – to his staff. And to get them answered man to man, so to speak. That approach would be inconceivable in our age of Microsoftized communication, in which messages get sent by email, and emails get bogged down – or die – in inboxes.

Agile collaboration vs. email

Companies seeking to become fast and agile have tended to look upon the established email culture with contempt. They want their communications to be faster and more intuitive than anything email can offer. This perspective took hold at Lyft, for example, a major competitor of Uber, the ridesharing company. At one time, the company’s Lyft Business unit operated a conventional communications setup, with document exchange, email communication and messaging. That system worked well – as long as all of the unit’s employees were working in one place. And so, when the company opened two new locations, that limitation led it to introduce a new communications tool: Slack.

Slack is something of a rising star in the communications and collaboration firmament, with a purported ten million daily users. While most users use the service free of charge (which likely contributes significantly to the service’s success), a total of 85,000 companies pay for it. The company went public in June of this year, achieving a valuation of 16 billion dollars in its initial public offering. Deepest sympathy if you purchased any shares, by the way. If you did, you’ve lost about eighteen dollars per share as of today (November 2019). The stock market doesn’t seem to be too bullish on today’s new communications and collaboration culture. But that might change in the future.

While Slack is often described as a sort of “WhatsApp for business,” that description doesn’t really do the service justice. What Slack does have in common with WhatsApp – and with Twitter – is its instant-messaging speed, its simplicity of use and its support for public-channel communication. Significantly, that last feature tends to break down organizational silos, and it forces employees to adopt new perspectives on their communications.

Trendy + new = good?

Speed is the be-all and end-all in Slack. The simplicity that Slack brings to communications is also important – for example, in that it encourages communication. Now while “more communication” may be good news for sociologists, it can quickly turn into “more nightmares” for company employees and managers. This is because “more communication” does not necessarily mean “more work done.” And because – even more importantly – “more communication” does not necessarily mean “more quality communication.”

When movie heroes get stuck in quicksand, they don’t try to extricate themselves by first developing sophisticated rescue plans for their sidekicks. They usually call out something like “Stop! Pull me out!” If their sidekick is a little on the slow side, they might add something like “use a rope!” In other words, they issue short, to-the-point instructions – for agile working. They don’t try to initiate detailed discussions. Slack brings this emergency-communication principle to everyday agile-communication scenarios. It helps build Twitter-like corporate cultures in which terse, concise communication is the norm. In many situations, it can be useful and even important to make communication fast and to-the-point.

One tool for all communication needs?

When urgency becomes an end in its own right, communication can lose its value and substance, however. And staff who are not always “on” (for example, at customer events) can easily lose touch. What’s more, searching through piles of old messages for specific content can be a time-consuming process. It seems obvious to me, therefore, that such communication tools need to be enhanced with artificial intelligence – with AI that can winnow out the important from the unimportant – especially in international working environments where different time zones are involved. That would help ensure that our communications do not overwhelm any real exchanges of information.

Will we all be “Slacking” instead of emailing, ten years from now? Who knows? I can’t look that far into the future. In any case, I do know that the real business requirements facing us are not just about agility and speed. To really dig into issues, we need to have ongoing, in-depth discussion. And we will need special tools for that as well – especially because our human creativity will increasingly, in the coming years, be one of the key things setting us apart from artificial intelligence. So, we may well find ourselves living in a “hack & slay” culture – I mean, a “Slack & mail” culture. With the right tool for every task. But if that happens, let’s hope we use our collaboration tools with wise empathy.  After all, there’s no going back to the time of Robert Bosch …

About the author

Jutta Rahenbrock

Manager Product Marketing, T-Systems International

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