We Never Talk Anymore

We have so many stock phrases about telephony that we probably could never catalog them all. Research a couple decades ago showed that kids could use a phone almost as soon as they could talk. Today? I had a conversation with a young waitress a weekend ago, and she remarked that the only people she talked with on the phone were her parents.

OK, so sociological trends aren't your thing, but think about this one. Where does "unified communications" go if it means phone calls among people who only talk to their parents? Nielsen says that talking on the phone isn't even in the top five things that kids do with smartphones. Are we seeing a change in pure social behavior, something that won't bleed into business, or are we seeing a redefinition of the kind of behavior on which we've founded an industry?

Real-Time Expectations

If you do want to dig a bit into sociology, try this one on. Texting and social media have changed communications by shifting it from being episodic and focused on recapitulation ("what did you do today") to being about making others a part of your every experience. When things like Facebook and Twitter got started, a lot of old-timers were totally disgusted with having to put up with the minute details of others' lives. Not so the youth, and today not so for the great majority of smartphone users either. We've readjusted our notion of keeping up; it's now real time.

If future (near future, let's face it) collaboration is a continuous real-time relationship, it poses some challenges. Does a worker tweet as he removes the panel cover, tweet again when he turns a valve? How would anyone get anything done? Obviously, you'd have to replace the tweets with a video feed, right? But that doesn't solve the problem. Optimum management span of control, experts say, is a dozen or so. Our worker may be able to spin up a video feed, but can his manager absorb the feed of all her subordinates and keep up?

Everyone recognizes, intuitively, that if social media is sweeping the personal lives of workers, it probably has to be integrated into the collaborative process. Attempts to do that haven't been a great success, and the reason is that you can't transport social processes directly to collaboration. Try to pick a product strategy in tweets if you don't believe me. That doesn't mean that the collaborative processes aren't bending under social-media weight, though, and that we don't have to account for that.

Episodically Immersive

The video feed notion is probably a good one, but it needs some tuning. We don't need our manager to watch 12 feeds in real time, because most of the stuff is going to be just as boring as taking the cover off the panel. What we need is to be able to recover the video when something goes wrong. Collaboration differs from the social processes in that it's not fully immersive, it's episodically so. We look around all the time and don't do much with what we see, unless it's an onrushing car or a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk.

Let's assume that future collaboration is based on a combination of gathering behavioral input for storage, and retrieval of that selectively when something triggers an interest. That gives us two nice issues to look at -- the storage and the retrieval.

On the storage side, the challenge isn't what to store on (anything that can handle the data is fine), it's what to store. The manager is going to want to be able to "see" through the eyes of our worker, not only in a video sense but in all of the contextual ways that might be relevant. There might be a hundred panels that look alike from the perspective of a helmet camera, so we need GPS information. We might also need to know temperature, time of day, and do forth. In short, we need everything relevant, even possibly relevant, to the trigger event.

What we probably, no surely, don't need at this point is for the worker to be describing what he's doing. Rather than supporting enhanced productivity, that interferes with it. We might need to have conversation at some point, perhaps when the manager decides what went wrong and needs to describe the corrective steps. But even that step isn't linked to the solution to the problem as much as to our old-fashioned notion of what communications is about.

Show, Don't Tell

What would a teen do in a situation like that? Message a link that shows what to do. The manager could do the same thing if the correct procedure was described in a video, and that's one area where the current trend in social discourse and productivity common sense converge. Don't keep telling people the same thing; make a video that shows it. Think like a YouTube star when you're managing a workforce of YouTube consumers.

Everything about collaboration doesn't change, of course. It's hard to visualize a free exchange of ideas in a face-to-face meeting or videoconference as a mad group of frantic tweeters. Group discussions on social media do work, but would they work to exchange complex ideas? Many say "No!" but many said nobody could do in an SMS or tweet what they do in a call. They were right, but what they missed was that you could redesign the process so you didn't need to do that at all. Collaboration seems heading in that direction, and perhaps our tools should head there too.

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