Around ten years ago, I witnessed an argument between two colleagues over whether you could find the answer to any question via Google. “What are they building over there then?”, asked one of them, pointing out the window. Google provided the answer in less than a minute. It took the wisdom that only a small child has to shatter this illusion – several years later I told my son you could find the answer to anything on Google, only to be foiled with his very first question – “what’s for pudding?”
Google also struggles to answer some of the bigger questions in life, such as “is there life after death?”, “is there such thing as karma?” and “are humans inherently selfish?”. While internet opinion is divided on all three questions, I think few would argue with the assertion that in the the context of this blog series, the answer to the last question is “yes”.
The vast majority of business communication is selfish. The content and audience for the message, and the channel through which it is sent is chosen by the sender, usually based on what’s best for them. This is equally true for external and internal communication, for email campaigns sent to customers and for discussions between employees.
Let’s be honest here, if you work in marketing and send out bulk emails, what percentage of the recipients do you think actually want to receive what you’ve sent? How many just haven’t got round to unsubscribing? And, inside the company, when you send an instant message to someone instead of an email, is it really because you need the answer right now? Did you consider the interruption you’ve just caused the recipient and decided it was important enough to justify, rather than send them the question via a less intrusive method like email? Someone started an instant message conversation with me the other day with the line “Hi Richard, sorry to interrupt you”, and it struck me how very rare it is for people to make such apologies.
If instant messaging is the ultimate in selfish communication, then we can consider enterprise social networking as the most altruistic; ESNs put the recipient in control of the information they receive, as discussed in Push and Pull earlier in this series. But for such networks to succeed, they need employees to be prepared to share their knowledge, to give their colleagues visibility into their work in progress, and to trust other people to use their work appropriately and responsibly.
Unfortunately, many people find this adjustment very hard. Their selfish “knowledge is power” communication habits have become so deeply ingrained that they react with incredulity to any suggestion that they should share what they consider to be their knowledge. Yet, often, the same people will be the first to complain when they feel they’ve not been given the information they need to to their jobs. The problem with this “need to know” attitude is that in anything other than the smallest companies, you genuinely don’t know who else needs to know what you know. So it is far better to err on the side of “allowed to know” and share your knowledge as widely as confidentiality allows.
Even those people who understand the benefits of sharing knowledge often fail to do so. I’ve frequently heard the excuse that someone was too busy to share a document on a social network, so they just sent it as an email instead. Maybe that seems like the best thing for the sender to do at that moment, but ultimately it’s another example of selfish communication – saving themselves a few minutes has deprived a much wider potential audience of the knowledge.
Going back to the question of whether humans are inherently selfish, one of the main debates seems to be whether altruistic behaviour is actually just another example of selfishness because it makes someone feel better about themselves. It’s true that sharing your knowledge can give you a warm fuzzy feeling, but it also has a more discernible impact. If you share what you know, you find that people are more likely to share their knowledge with you; if cause fewer unnecessary interruptions to others, you are interrupted less frequently yourself. And it’s well known that the volume of email you receive is usually directly proportional to the volume you send. Communicate with others as you would have them communicate with you.
So we can also answer the second big question – yes, there is such thing as karma, as least within the context of business communication. As for life after death… sorry, I can’t help you with that one. Or, more importantly, what’s for pudding.