Signals instead of conversations ?

Summary :  enterprises will have to enter the world of conversations. Everything will become conversations between enterprises, employees and customers. Such a concept, when not introduced the right way, is scary for lots of businesses because it overlooks the need to make conversations actionable. Most of all, employees are very uncomfortable with the conversation attitude at work. A matter of attitude but also a matter of sense, organization, time, tools…and a human matter full stop. The business world is more in need of signals contributing to ambient awareness than of conversations. Conversations can follow the signals but are not indispensable. In the current state of maturity, employees are more comfortable with factual signal logics that may lead to conversations than with conversations as a direct model. As a matter of fact, even if  “markets are conversation” , it’s time to realize that organizations are not market (for the moment ?). And customers seem to prefer results and factual interactions than social conversations.

Tomorrow, everything will be conversations. The web will all be made of conversations between businesses and customers and intranets will be nothing more conversations between employees. Business need to join the world of conversations and facilitate conversations between and with anyone. Of course, in the small world of initiated people, everybody understands what hides behind this simplistic shortcut (although…). But, when held in front of “real” large businesses and decision makers, this discourses often sounds irrelevant.

Of course, we can argue the these businesses rely on old frames of reference and did not get the new world that’s emerging. This is true, even partly, but does not explain everything and should not be the easy pretext that prevents from having a critical look at the content of some concepts and the way they’re introduced.

Let’s take a few minutes to put ourselves in any executive’s shoes. Imagine a business world where everyone would spend his time having conversations. The first thing that comes to you mind is : lower productivity, people loosing time chatting. Of course…such a thinking shows the person do not understand the “new world”…but, in some ways, it’s not totally wrong. Engagement and conversations share the same problem : they’re worth if actionable. In other words :

– they are part of concrete frameworks (marketing, innovation, customer service, problem solving….) and not a plan saying “converse, converse…and maybe, sometimes, we’ll manager to leverage it for business purposes”/

– they relate to an empowerment approach : conversations expose involved employees to an external stimulus that should, in most of cases, be followed by an action. If the employee is not able to take any action following the conversation, the conversation is useless and may even be deceptive for those who participated. Even if the only benefit of the conversation is related to knowledge acquisition, employees need to be able to use this knowledge in their work in the future and not be locked into logics focused on strict use of previously validated and official knowledge.

But this is not all. Conversations means a series of exchanges overtime, the willing to exchange with or without predefined purpose. So businesses started to focus on one goal : stimulating conversation. They need to make people talk the one with the other. This job usually falls to the community manager. Now let’s see this with a little distance to realize how absurd it is : if we want people to have conversations and they don’t do, do you think, even a second, that, with all the tools they already have, an internal social network (for employees) or external communities (for customers), animated by a community manager who’s mission is to make people talk will change anything ? If conversations have neither sense nor interest, the best tools and community managers won’t change anything. The problem is elsewhere.

Employees are uncomfortable with conversations

But are we sure people are looking for conversations ? Not at all. For a matter of sense first but also for a matter of time, of attention. I’m not sure that the person, customer or employee, who sends a message in a bottle expects a conversation. He expects a solution. And the less talking to get it the better it is. I’m not sure the one that receives the bottle is looking for conversations either. He’s waiting for a signal. And, most of times, nothing more.

That’s the original promise of tools based on short status notification (twitter or even facebook in some ways) or geolocation tools like foursquare. “I’m doing this”. “I’m there”. Period. As a receiver, this signals are enough in 99% cases. They are ambient awareness tools that are like a 7th digital sense that helps me to perceive what’s happening around me and act accordingly. Sometimes this signal may lead to conversation but, usually, it’s self sufficient. My purpose is not to have fun playing with concepts : all these things really matter in the way the collaboration activities and what’s purposely called open work is structured. As a matter of fact we have to admit that employees are not comfortable at all with the idea of generating conversations. It takes time, needs writing skills and, to some extent, self exposure. On the other hand, sending a signal ans responding to the ones who react to the signals is less exposing because signals are more factual. Knowing that there will always be a small percentage of people who are good at conversations and use the wisely for business purpose, we should try to find what would work for the others.

“Social signals” come before conversations…and are often enough

– it’s easier to make employees aware of the power of short factual signals than of longer and more exposing ones that are designed to start conversations. It’s not a good thing to make everyone think their messages as if they should be the first step of a conversation (that may never happen) and make them change the way they communicate with no benefit. The difference of behaviors between sending a signal and starting a conversation is really blocking. Imagine what difference it makes for employees to hear “start conversations” or  “tell facts about what you do”.

– in this context, if the conversation does not start (what often happens, most of in internal collaboration), people won’t be neither frustrated nor disappointed because they did not expect anything. They were just keeping others informed. Period.

– a short factual signal is often enough for those who receives it. Don’t believe that anything will end up with conversations. More : the shorter things are the more attention is  saved.

– that’s a good opportunity to make the most out of synergies between business tools and social tools. Do something in a business tool and switch to a social tool to tell what has been done is time wasting and counter-intuitive. But automating things so business tools generate signals in the social platform to improve the ambient awareness and eventually cause a conversation is a good way to start the machine with few efforts. 95% employees care only about business applications and will never use another platform to narrate their work because it’s redundant and they don’t have the time nor the skills to narrate things. But, if someone reacts to a shared signal, they will be more likely to join the conversation with the one who offered his help to help closing a deal, solve a problem etc. That’s the promising way  taken by Tibbr, IBM (Vulcan) or Salesforce (Chatter). The last one is the perfect illustration of my words : socially speaking the tools is…let’s say rough and has limited abilities. But its ability to share signals coming from the crm tool hits the bull’s eye.


Market are conversations…but enterprises aren’t markets

One more thing. Some will say I’m infringing the holy words of the Cluetrain Manifesto that say “markets are conversation”. My answer stands in three points :

– from a certain point of view, markets are conversations. But they’re more than that and taking inspirational discourses at face value makes overlook the complexity of things.

– as I mentioned in previous posts (most of all here) we have more and more evidences that customers are not looking for communities or deep relationships with businesses but information and services. For instance, a report shows that in the airline industry social conversations accounted for…..0,02% of messages on twitter.

– as for internal things, enterprises are not markets. Resource allocation (which are collaboration killer according to the wise Pr. Goldratt), the weight of HR systems and many other things makes than businesses are, sadly, far from being skills and expertise markets what is the collective intelligence and knowledge economy Graal. I hope that one day I’ll have to change my opinion. But we’re  light years away from that.

Let’s learn to send signals and react to them efficiently. That will be a good start and a common shared founding for everyone. If conversations need to happen they’ll happen. But trying to make conversations happen at any price, even by creating them, and, in the end, make them become a goal instead of a means will be very deceptive and will waste lot of energy that could have had a better use elsewhere.


Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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