What’s Left to Murder-Death-Kill?

You know it’s a good day when you can drop a Demolition Man reference.

It’s a weird time right now. Intertubes-based communication is crowding older, established methods, and as digital natives (i.e. Millenials) enter the workforce, their preferred means for communicating are at odds with what we’re all used to using to, you know, do business.

This has lead bloggers (surprise) to call for the death of the old ways, e.g. business cards and voicemail. Email is under siege too as people react to stuffed inboxes by declaring bankruptcy or refusing to use email at all.

Why can’t we all just get along?

I have no problem with business cards, voicemail or phone calls, email, IM, social network messaging, posts on my wall, blog comments, Twitter, or whatever. However, these are manageable for me.

I do have two items on my hit list though: fax and snail mail. I was reminded of those recently when I had to send my health insurance company documentation for reimbursement. The helpful representative informed me that I should send the documentation to their PO Box. I asked if there was another method; she replied, we have a fax number. Grr.

It’s pretty rare that someone requires a fax or snail mail, unless you’re doing real estate or legal stuff. I guess the need for signed documents will keep these two around for a while.

Anyway, back to the point, people ping me through any number of mediums, which doesn’t really bother me. What’s the big deal then?

I guess the point is that when you have an unmanageable amount of communication, you want to make it stop. But because the people who have loudly called for the death of these methods are VCs and influential bloggers, you wonder if anything other than a career change will make the noise stop for them. Seems like it comes with the territory.

Still people have differing abilities to manage communication chaos.

I’m more interested in the effect shifts in communication will have on the workplace. Fragmented communication has at least two negative impacts, at least on me: 1) it becomes very hard to recall information and 2) it torpedoes my focus.

How recently did you ask yourself “where did I put that”? Search and recovery are enormous timesinks, and when you have more possibilities to search, it only gets worse. Say I’m trying to find someone’s email address, but can’t recall where it would be. The more places to search, the more time I spend recovering the information. Not good.

Now, if you’re Mrs./Ms/Miss/Mr. Influential you can dictate how people contact you, but if you’re not, then you better have a mind like a steel trap.

Fragmenting communication across a bunch of different mechanisms also makes it extremely hard to focus, at least for me. I already have work-based ADD; it’s hard to find time to concentrate on deliverables with the steady stream of meetings and communication.

To do real work, I have to drop offline entirely and digitally seclude myself. Not ideal, but it works for me.

Will communication overload eventually make it impossible to do real work? And if you can’t concentrate on real work, who can?

So, what’s the answer? There’s no denying that communication will shift away from older forms to newer ones, but is it better to force standardization or stretch your ability to listen to multiple channels?

Seriously, I think we all want an answer.

Find the comments and add your voice.




  1. Good post Jake! I dont have answers just a comment …
    For me, a lot of that email is work. Maybe not explicitly in my job description but its work for the product I try to represent.
    Information overload? For me its question overload .. email, public forums, internal forums, phone calls, the occasional tweet … no snail mail thank goodness.
    I have taken steps to try and manage it. 'Questiony' email gets an hour a day and the forums the same. Outside of that they gotta wait until tomorrow. Yes you do fall behind some daze but make it up on others but you can not be immediately reactive to everything that 'falls on the mat' – been there, went mad and came back.
    Now Im trying to be more proactive, FAQs, recorded demos, blogging – its just a case of educating folks where the information is. Its working I think, the number of 'questiony' emails I can now answer with a link to information has gone way up. I still need to find the article on the blog or the FAQ question but with Google et al now scouring the content, life is easier. Email is a pain – you answer a question in a mail and unless you can cc a mailing list or forum its a completely private answer and effectively a waste of time. Not for the recipient of course but for the wider community who may have the same issue.

  2. “Work based ADD” – Next time I write my job description I think that this sums it up entirely in 3 short words. Perfect!

  3. I find myself all the time thinking of things I've read or thought about and then not remembering *where* I got started on that thought or *who* I should credit with the point. Was it twitter? facebook? google reader? newspaper? people magazine? where to start the search for attribution is becoming a big deal for me as I seem to background process stuff and come back to it a few weeks later. Interesting thing is I tend to subscribe “voices” to people I read a lot. Jake has a voice in my head but I've never actually heard your voice so this is probably an issue. I realized that I had the wrong voice entirely for David the other day as somehow I left off the cool Brit accent.

  4. +1 on losing track of source and/or misfiling.

    The fragmentation/multiple channels challenge is unmanageable if you assume that all mthods are equally important and require instant response. Fact is, I only read snail mail 2x/week, and there are several email filters that only get checked on rainy Friday afternoons. Sure it would be easier if all the streams converged into one, but until that happens (not in my lifetime) you have to prioritize and set expectations for response on the most common channels. 2 key questions to ask: what method is best to get your attention? and what method is best to get your action? Good answers to know for most people you work with on a regular basis.

  5. Nice comment. I spoke with a woman last week who had a great nugget. She asked rhetorically, what would you think if your job description said “send and receive 30,000 emails in 5 years” or something of the like? It's funny to quantify it in those terms, but true.

    You're right, so much of what we do in product development is answering questions and making it easier to find answers. I like the new word “questiony”.

  6. Glad you like it. I honestly don't think it would affect me as badly at a different job, but this line of work makes it a necessity or a trait.

  7. Interesting technique. Having a case of it now, I think I mentioned tagging IRL over Twitter, i.e. how nice it would be to tag your words so people wouldn't have trouble with attribution. Like thought Post-Its.

  8. The sad thing is fragmentation just keeps getting worse, and the power game makes it hard to standardize. You allude to that when you mention best ways to get attention and action.

    The more power you broker, the more you can dictate a channel. The good news is that it's a bit easier to separate chatter vs. listen/act channels. That boundary gets more blurred all that time though as people move around and require your attention.

    Someone should commoditize attention to make it more scarce and thus keep people's overflowing communication in check.

  9. I still use post it notes to track things I need to do today/this week in order to not get fired. Otherwise my email inbox tends to be my to do list and my information repository (I occasionally email my bookmark file to myself – useful back up if you change machines) Other communication channels I treat as transient information.

  10. I'm a Post-It guy too. Too much technology is aimed at modernizing the ways we already use successfully to do our jobs. For example, desktop sticky apps should appeal to me, as a Post-It guy, but I never could use them b/c they weren't persistent IRL.

    It's like Hollywood movies. For every really good, interesting movie, there are ten sequels that should never have been made. But people have to eat.

  11. The ultimate To Do item is the one you write on your hand – 'Birthday Present for Wife' etc.

    Now with my iPhone it is much easier to access online notes (using something like Evernote) without booting up my laptop and finding a wireless network etc. that starts to change the persistence IRL factor

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