Market musings

Saving Business Communication from the Black Hole of Messaging Apps

by Sasha Viasasha
June 7, 2017

Messaging apps were supposed to save the world from the inefficiencies of email by delivering instantaneous notifications, but there is mounting evidence that they’ve further fractured an already fractured business communication infrastructure. To compound the confusion, everyone has at least two or three apps installed on their smartphones, and there is often no consensus on best use practices. When people need information quickly they may send an email, then a message, then a text, all the while dropping into channels on Slack, chat rooms on Skype, and so on, just to see who is around.  

The problem is compounded as messaging app redundancies create multiple conversation threads and bring unnecessary people into the conversation. Impatience for information might cause multiple requests to go out across numerous mediums, to different people, duplicating the work and complicating even routine matters. 

The irony is that while technology has gotten exponentially faster, business communication and decision making have slowed to a snail mails pace as analysis paralysis sets in. 

Of course, there is plenty for people to do as they wait, but the engagement to be found on messaging apps isn’t very productive—to say the least.

In his essay, “Slack, I’m Breaking Up with You,” UX designer Samuel Hulick wrote, “Hey there, Slack. This won’t be easy, but it’s for the best… Email may have had its flaws with its ‘FWD: FWD: CC: FWD You have to read this!!1!’ jokes sent from distant family members, but my god in heaven do those sound like the halcyon days of tranquility compared to the Diet-Coke-and-Mentos-like explosion of cat gifs, bot feeds, and emoji mashups you’ve brought into my life.”

Cognitive overload

Ever wonder why messaging can be so mentally exhausting? Messaging in text has a pretty high cognative load, particularly when users are shifting between tasks. Cognitive load is concerned with how many logical steps the brain has to take in order to contextualize the information it’s processing. Even a single textual exchange is loaded with uncertainties that make the brain take even more steps to process all the possibilities. Each uncertainty creates a new possibility tree, which creates more cognitive processes.

In the meantime, users may be navigating several conversations across multiple platforms, and uncertainty about whether the recipient has received and understood the last message is yet another cognitive uncertainty that plagues every step of the conversation. In a chat group or channel, this is complicated by multiple parties who may enter or exit the conversation at different times.

Even worse, since textual exchanges are often left unresolved, the mental processes are carried over into the next task, creating an environment where poor cognitive functioning is the new norm. 

Is it any wonder miscommunications abound and poor productivity inhibits business  outcomes and growth across the world?  

Can you imagine holding an endless meeting with no agenda, with random people dropping in and out at different times, and presenting to an empty room? No one would tolerate such absurdities in real life and yet messaging apps often serve precisely such a role in the digital realm.  

The promise of better business communication

Part of the promise of messaging was AI (artificial intelligence), which would populate the conversational interface with helpful bots, who would serve up data, eliminating the need for search, while ordering cars and Thai food as needed, and generally facilitating a smoother, more connected experience. Your messaging app would simplify everything, and the team would have better communication, engagement and collaboration. 

What happened?

It may be that a text-based conversational interface may not be the most efficient form of timely, effective business communication when decision-making and consensus are important, or for resolving sensitive, urgent issues.

History repeats itself

We’ve been here before. Before the telephone came the telegraph, which transmitted messages first by electrical signals and later by radio waves.

Actually, what we call the telegraph was built on the principles of “optical telegraphy,” which involved flashing symbols along a line of sight, just as Romans had done with torches and Native Americans with smoke signals. Optical telegraphy found critical deployments during the French Revolution and American Civil War, but things didn’t really get too exciting in the field until electricity came along. After the first telegraph cable was laid across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1866, this proto-internet grew to become the world’s first global communication system.

WTF Samuel Morse?

Perhaps inventor Samuel Morse had a sense of foreboding about what his brainchild might turn into, because his first telegraph message was, “What Hath God Wrought?” In the years to follow, many people have exclaimed more colorful variations of this question whenever a messaging app buried a crucial exchange or delivered sensitive information to the wrong person.

The confusion provoked by instantaneous communication

The telegraph was hailed as a late 19th century herald of progress and promise, and while it had a beneficial impact on the movement of material goods, particularly perishable goods, thus optimizing turn-of-the-century supply chains, it also had a deleterious effect on human relations.

Information without context

Some more recent scholarship has focused on the disruptive nature of the telegraph, which delivered immediacy but not necessarily accuracy or a context, thus setting the stage for some pretty historic miscommunications. Historian David Paull Nickles explored some of the most notable near-disasters in Under the Wire,  noting that the impact of telegraphy on the quality of decision making “tended to make the management of diplomatic crises more difficult and arguably increased the likelihood of war.” Telegraphy shaped public opinion quickly but not necessarily thoughtfully, contributing to the rise of both internal discord and division as well as nationalism.  

The forgotten history of wireless messaging

We think of wireless technology as one of the unique legacies of the 21st century, but in reality it has been around for hundreds of years, albeit in a form that was far from consumer-ready. Marconi sent his first wireless message in 1894 and his first Transatlantic radio signal just 7 years later. However, what defines our era has been the development of a simple and yet super-sophisticated user interface, allowing anyone to easily use technologies that previously required intensive training.

At the same time, the maturation of industries of scale allowed the mass production of the personal device, leading to the democratization and widespread adoption of technologies that previously were limited to an official capacity.

And then when you add the internet into the equation, the sum total is a massively interconnected world where anyone can potentially reach anyone else, anywhere. Soon a network of 4,425 satellites could blanket the Earth, even it’s loneliest deserts and highest mountaintops, with high-speed internet, if Elon Musk's proposal continues to gain traction. 

It’s like we are all wireless telegraph operators now. 

And yet, in many ways it’s become much more difficult to communicate effectively. 

New technology is almost always hailed as a hero, until it fails to live up to its own spectacular hype. Such was the case on the Titanic, which was equipped with all the latest technology, but somehow failed to heed the many messages warning of its doom. 

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Messaging failed the Titanic

The US Congress passed the Wireless Shipping Act of 1910 in a burst of uncritical enthusiasm, spurred on by the rescue of a single ship by a wireless operator. The act required that all ships be equipped with wireless technology. However, this mandate was unable to save the Titanic two years later.  Although many urgent messages were sent to the ship warning of icebergs, no one knows why they were ignored. The ship’s wireless operator was even transmitting passenger messages when the ship struck the massive iceberg. Among the messages successfully transmitted before the disaster:

“Hello Boy. Dining with you tonight in spirit, heart with you always. Best love, Girl.”

and

“No sickness. All well. Notify all interested in poker.”

Anna Karenina died of a messaging snafu

Tolstoy’s epic tale of the tragic Russian beauty who died for love is commonly held to be the world’s most perfect novel. Tolstoy created the sublime tension that drove the despairing beauty to her final, tragic act by crafting a miscommunication that must have been common at the time.  As Anna’s final hour drew near, she commenced a heated exchange with her lover, frantically sending off multiple messages and telegrams. Receiving a message by courier, Anna is driven by its cold tone to her suicidal resolution, not realizing that Vronsky was replying to her telegraph, and not her message.

She died not of broken heart, but a broken channel.  

It may take another hundred years before a genius rivaling Tolstoy is able to similarly deploy a messaging app as a useful device in a climax equal to Anna Karenina’s, or it may be never. But a lack of richness of material won’t be the problem.

The use of messaging apps can be extremely useful, for example when one needs to send a discreet, private message, or when it’s impossible to speak on the phone. For simple, straightforward communications, textual exchanges can save time and effort. But they will always lack what voice communication offers: both immediacy and vital context.

For effective, productive, meaningful conversations, voice is unrivaled by any other messaging platform. Even instant messaging is not as instantaneous or accurate as a phone call, as messages can be delayed, lost and even altered in text editors and spell check programs. Voice conversations are intelligently paced, and it’s impossible for messages to cross one another or appear out of order.

Speaking on the phone reduces uncertainties, lag time and ambiguity. But even more than eliminating uncertainty and crossed signals, voice communication supplies essential context that helps us organize, process and act on information.

There has been a lot written about the loss of empathy that comes when we begin using digital tools to communicate. When email came, flaming soon followed. The anonymity of the internet allowed people to retreat behind personas and feel less restraint.

Voice is essentially social

We speak, not to ourselves, but to another. Our voice carries meaning, intention, volition, and can demonstrate our commitment and integrity. Not merely a means to deliver information, voice itself is information.  

Leadership, team building, and consensus are very difficult to achieve without speaking. Voice communication is flexible, and can adapt instantly to the circumstance. Conversation is vital to effective business communication. In a conversation, feedback is instantaneous, and nuanced. Because of this, the cognitive load of voice conversation is low, allowing a great deal of information to be processed with very little effort. Voice communication resolves problems, further reducing cognitive load, and fostering better decision-making and organizational performance.

At Spoke

We believe that more can be resolved in a two-minute phone call than hours or even days of back and forth on email or messaging apps. But if voice communication is easy, choosing a phone system isn't. We've created a virtual phone system that can be set up in three minutes and provides enterprise level functionality. It even has smart features that can help eliminate the initial awkwardness of voice communication by providing presence and context, and helping teams better manage missed calls to facilitate better customer support. To learn more about how Spoke works, and how if it can support better business communication and performance in your organization, vist our FAQ page or drop us a line and let's have a conversation. 

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