Asynchronous technology does not work for critical tasks

As I already said, there’s something wrong with social collaboration. In this post I’ll focus on a very problematic point that’s a barrier to successful adoption and deployment of social collaboration platforms in the workplace.

When rolling-out such platform, users fall into three categories based on their reactions.

• The neutrals  ” Will I stay, will I join….it depends on what others will do”.  These people follow the center of gravity of the company and don’t matter regarding to my point.

• The opponents. They can oppose for many reasons, one them being “it’s going to be messy, it will make me lose time, it’s so complicated”.

• The believers. Among them we find those who believe just because it’s new, those who are convinced that it’s possible to work better in another way (and that it’s needed) and those who used to be skeptical but were convinced by others.

I never expect anything from opponents. However, an opponent who becomes a believer is always the best advocate you can find. Neutrals are followers. So everything relies on a critical mass of believers and a strong dynamic from their part. What worries me a lot is to see people who used to be believers giving away over time, not at the beginning but after 2 or 3 years of intensive use. The reason ? They lose time, they find it messy, complicated. In the end they even end with the same discourse as opponents.

How can tools supposed to make things easier, more fluid, to favor contacts and peer-to-peer collaboration deliver the opposite effects as those expected ? Because they’re not used properly and not deployed the right way.

Handling everything in an asynchronous way is a mistake

By definition, social collaboration tools are asynchronous. You write and the others react when they have time. At the beginning it’s been seen as an advantage because it allows interactions despite of time constraints. Very useful for large distributed teams or people working on different time zones. Very useful for communities : conversations being the purpose there is no deliverable at stake or any deadline so things move forward depending on people’s availability and will. Very useful for capitalization because what is shared one day can be reused or restart one year later.

On the contrary it’s not useful at all when there’s a deadline or if there’s a decision to be made.

We often say that email is the place where good ideas go to die but we can say the same about social networks. Who had never been stuck, waiting for a decision, a validation, an answer to move forward in his work ? An, above all, never get any answer ? As someone recently told me “before we used to make meetings, to walk to another office to meet people, to call them…now we’re having conversation and it’s taking a long long time.”. Of course it was the same with email. I’m not  saying things are getting wrong but that few progress was made, if any. Should we blame technology ? Maybe it accounts for 20% of the problem. Should we blame the way we use it ? Of course, it’s 80% of the problem”.

When social networks face the same problems as email

Whatever the tool, bad habits die hard.

1°) We want to do everything the asynchronous way while some needs require a real time conversation.

2°) Most enterprise social networking solutions focus on conversations and not tasks. We’re losing the sense of urgency, of deliverables, of deadlines and end with tea room conversations.

3°) Except in very specific cases, it’s not possible to close a conversation. So a decision can still be commented one hour, one day, one week after it’s made. There are time when the discussion must be closed, the debate must cease and people should not be able to discuss what’s been decided anymore.

4°) On social networks, conversations can be seen by a more or less large audience. What can lead people to take moderate stands, to be less critical than they’d like to. So either they start a parallel conversation by email (what makes things complicated) or they say nothing but don’t do anything to contribute to a decision they won’t agree with.

5°) When a social network is used by enough people, it’s easier to see important messages disappear than in a mailbox. And it’s often harder to find it back that in the mailbox. A situation than happen even more often that for many users what happens in the social network is less critical than what happens in the mailbox. So they follow it less, and the less you’re checking your social network the more information passes and dies.

6°) Because all these problems can be fixed by adopting shared good practices. That’s the problem of any solution that needs a collective adoption : if two people use it well and the others use is the wrong way so the whole group is using it the wrong way. We learned nothing from the way we misused email.

Social networks can even be worse than emails

When it comes to critical tasks and interactions, enterprise social networks solved few of the problems we had with email and that’s for a reason : that’s not a technology issue but a use one. When people have bad habits they keep it whatever the tool. But the network as one more handicap : for 80% of users, anythig critical is “email first”. If it’s not in the mailbox it’s not  critical.

Today people have very little time and multitask a lot. The few attention left is grabbed by email. In the end there’s very little attention left for other tools and, among them, social collaboration ones. So you can wait a long time for your boss to validate the slides you’ve shared….the next time you’ll use your email with a “very urgent” status. Bad practice, of course, but it works better and your goal is to get a decision, not to have a conversation. Easy choice.

Of course there are notifications. But since they come from the social network they’re seen as less critical than real mails. Then few users manage them : either they miss a lot of things or they  get so many ones than they don’t read them anymore. And some users often “force” notifications to others for any matter so when they’ll do it for a good reason no one reads. Same as for “urgent” emails…but emails will always been handled before social content. Because critical things go into the email.

Dark but lucid observation. On the other hand there are ways to fix it provided people are aware of the problem and don’t roll-out a social network with a blissful optimism, thinking that self-regulation will happen by magic.

1°) Establish good practices : when it matters, someone cares and is accountable for getting things done before the deadline.

2°) When a decision must be made there must be preparatory discussions on an asynchronous tool but the final decision is made in real time.

3°) Set deadlines and have them respected. “Without any answer before 6.00 pm I consider it’s a “go””.

4°) Don’t be fooled by the conversational dream and chose a solution that can manage tasks, turn a comment into tasks and track “who has to do what for when…”.

5°) Integrate social networks with critical business applications.

6°) Bring collaboration back where users go and spend the few attention they have. In the email ? I think that’s the solution that will prevail in a close future.

But, first, don’t blame technology and don’t throw it away. It has nothing to do with the problem and won’t be successful without some rules everyone must follow. Thinking that it’s only a technology issue will never help to fix the actual problem : it’s been here for a while and will happen everywhere, with any technology, if behaviors don’t change.


Image Credit : Real Time Collaboration Via Shutterstock

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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