Technology (email, social networking, IM, cellular phones) enables faster, more complex inter-personal communications. But the Killer-app to help us stay on top of these communications is yet to be found. Managers find themselves unable to keep up to speed with dozens of emails, tasks, action items and communications whose speed and complexity is aggravated by the new technologies.
To explain the problem, let’s examine three theoretical scenarios:
- Management v0.1: Manager A needs something to be done, she speaks with Employee A, he sends a response. Done.
- Management v1.0: Manager B needs something to be done, she sends a message to Employees B1, B2 and client B3. After some follow-up communications, she eventually gets the response from everyone. Done.
- Management v2.0: Manager C needs lots of things to be done. She calls Employees C1 and C2, sends emails to Clients C3, C4, C5, and gets a task from Supervisor C7 whom she just met in the elevator. In the meanwhile, Employee C1 asks for more info, Employee C2 forwards it to Employees C9, she gets an out-of-office response from Employee C10, Client C5 does not respond at all and Supervisor C7 gets involved in the message to employee C3.
Confused? Communications in the Internet age are still about the same Sender-Message-Receiver (+context/code/contact) model but the velocity and “noise” involved in communications have imploded. In the Jakobsonian model, the Phatic function – making sure the channel of communications is working – is the crucial one. When you send an email, an instant message or leave a voice message to someone, you have no true “read receipt”. Communications are often broken, composed of multiple senders and recipients, and have many iterations. There are lots of theoretical questions (psychological, behavioral, sociological), and also one practical one: how to remain on top of it all. The two main problems are knowing a) which “open” communications do I have at every given moment and b) what is the exact status of each communication (who’s waiting for what).
With Inbox, Calendar, Tasks, Notes and what-not, I still haven’t found a system that would help me manage my day. I’ve just checked that I’ve got 22 different tasks I’m working on, I’m waiting for 13 replies to emails I’ve sent, I am copied on 8 other threads and that’s not including my personal tasks (go to the bank, renew my gym subscription, etc.) When I communicate I use primarily emails, but also mobile phone, work phone, Sharepoints, and sometimes even actually speak to people. But no system offers to me an easy answer to the problems above (which communications are open and what is their status).
Possible solution: Graphical Communication Dashboard
Ultimately, there is a need for a system that will track ALL my communications, telling me what do I need from whom, what do they need from me, and when. The basic model is ego-centric. You are involved in communications with numerous senders/receivers. (They may be an actual person, a v-team, a group, etc.). The important part is to track the status of each communication: did I get a response back? Did I respond back?
The following is just a rough draft of an idea, and indeed not a coherent, tested solution. The proposed solution is what I call a Graphical Communication Dashboard:
When using Outlook, for instance, I want to have the option of seeing how many communications I have open at the moment, what answer do I owe to whom, etc. A graphical way of presenting this information will provide a “Communications Dashboard” which is easier to manage than separate collections of inbox, calendar, tasks and IM items. Advantages of using a GCD:
- Categorizing and filtering these tasks is easier.
The problem in Outlook tasks, for instance, is that it’s hard to ask questions like, “What answers does John owe me?”, or “Which questions are my clients waiting for?”. Graphical presentation of these communications make it easy to easier to group and filter.
- Presenting immediate versus long-term tasks is easier (as a special type of filtering). Limiting the dashboard for “tasks to be completed today” would only display the relevant immediate communications.
- Handling communications with multiple participants (e.g., a v-team) could be simplified by the option to either display the dashboard by groups or by the individuals who “inherit” that communication from the groups they belong to.
Ultimately such system could be enhanced to support multiple extensions (e.g., connecting social networking sites or online announcements that I get from my bank). It would also provide managers with a great managerial tool to understand bottlenecks and provide an overall rhythm-of-business picture. Tracking non-textual communications like mobile or person-to-person is more challenging, but could still be tracked using follow-up emails or meeting notes.
I am not aware of any start-up doing such work at the moment, but as communications become faster, a Killer-app to solve the issues involved is bound to evolve. Graphical Communication Dashboard could be the basis for such an app.