The Pitfalls of Communication Technology

Most communication happens via some form of technology. For example, you are reading this communication on a screen, and you might then share it with a friend via an email. You’ll mention it to your colleagues at the start of a videocall if you really like it. All this potentially before you’ve even had one face to face interaction today.

Technology features in a significant proportion of our team activities. That is true for FAT (Flexible, Abundant & Transient) environments, but even the original distributed ICE team (Isolated, Confined & Extreme) – the astronauts of the 1960s – also had to do their team communication with earth via technology. Technology is essential, either for efficiency and performance reasons, or by necessity of the operating context. Communication is facilitated via technology across the spectrum of team environments from pedestrian to extreme. We have more communication technology in our back pockets than those 1960s astronauts used to land on the moon, a tired aphorism, but one that reminds us of the power and influence of the tools we have at our disposal. Teams are inevitably shaped by the technology they use to work, but they can also shape their engagement with it. This means we have an important and sometimes complex relationship with technology because the tech is a highly influential and structuring feature, yet our team behaviour and culture can moderate how we engage with it. I will now discuss one pitfall of technology mediated communication we are all vulnerable to: when the tool becomes the team.

Allowing the tool to become the team is an easy trap to fall into. Imagine the scenario, a team is working on a complicated project. Let’s fully animate it, imagine it’s a proposal for a potential new and very big client. It’s a high stakes pitch requiring all the different dimensions of the business to pull together: operations, creative, marketing, finance etc. We have the perfect ingredients for a true team challenge: complex task, process and relationship interdependence towards a clear common purpose. The project is deconstructed and distributed according to disciplines and skillsets and the team gets to work in clusters. Inevitable problems and uncertainties start to emerge as they progress and the channels of communication start to come alive as the team works to address them. The emails start to fly and ping and address bars become very busy places full of CCs and BCCs. Someone asks a question about a specific issue to do with budget, someone answers in a ‘reply to all’; the answer is interpreted slightly differently by different people and a debate starts. Elsewhere, an interpretation of that answer has already become an assumption baked-into one of the substantive parts of the project. By the time it emerges that the assumption is at odds with the way others had interpreted the answer and used it to work on their area, it is clear some work will have to be redone and tension starts to build, conflict starts to simmer. The substance of the work on the project slowly but surely starts to migrate into email communication. The email has its own sort of gravitational pull as people see the tasks they are working on existing within the written communication. People cannot or do not want to be disentangled from the email traffic, which has become some sort of toxic vortex of truth.

What went wrong? The post mortem of such a project would probably uncover layers of issues, some of them would be cultural, but some of them would be the innocent drift into allowing the powerful function of email to dictate how team members (a) relate to one another and (b) understand the reality of the task work they are doing. Teams can sleepwalk into such situations especially when the pressure is high and the time is short. It feels easy and efficient to fire off an email. But if all team members defend their precious time by batting away the emails as they arrive it becomes a contagion of communication, each defensive email is another point of contact, another vector of infection. More emails are sent, the traffic slows to a halt, every message is a new car added to the jam. Before you know it, people are out of their cars and setting up camp…this is where we live now.

Technology influences how we work, but we can influence how we work with technology. The best thing we can do in the teams and organisations we work in is to be reflective about how we are letting technology use us. Technology is not a benign vehicle. We need rules of engagement, which will be a combination of explicit and emergent implicit conventions that are shaped by team culture. In the case of email, we want to avoid the tool becoming the team. This will help us avoid the apocryphal tale of the team that became so consumed by email to develop a project, when their server went down they effectively ‘lost’ the project. We’ll also want to avoid the absurdity of the anecdote told in Daniel J. Levitin’s book “The Organized Mind”, when a primary school child is asked by her teacher what her daddy does for work. She thinks for a second and then replies confidently, “He does emails.”