Business Communication Courtesy Is A Waste Of Time

thankyouEvery week, one of my colleagues sends me an extract of social network activity data for me to analyse. Every week, I reply saying “thank you”; it’s just common courtesy. But each time I do it, I feel a little guilty for wasting a few moments of his time. I’m sure he already receives far too many messages, and I’m just adding to his information overload. He knows I’m grateful, because I say thank you every week. So why do I carry on doing it?

Similarly, when someone in the sales team closes a big deal, they often write a blog post about it on our company internal social network, and receive a long series of “congratulations” comments.

Rule 9 of the Email Charter encourages us to “Cut Contentless Responses”

You don’t need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying “Thanks for your note. I’m in.” does not need you to reply “Great.” That just cost someone another 30 seconds.

It is tempting to classify all these thank yous and congratulations as “contentless responses” and draw the conclusion that courtesy is just a waste of the sender’s and recipient’s time. But is it? These responses may not have any “information value”, but they do have “social value”; everyone likes to feel appreciated, and that can translate to real business value by making the recipient feel better motivated.

But do we have “information value” and “social value” in the correct balance? Is your inbox full of messages that courtesy required, but you really didn’t need to see? And is there a more efficient way of maintaining social niceties without further burdening our inboxes?

One solution to this is using a content rating system, where readers of the content provide feedback about how useful the information was to them. Instead of creating another message for the author to read, the reader expresses gratitude via a Facebook-esque “like” or (preferably) something rather more sophisticated. This is an obvious area in which enterprise social networks are better than email. There is no way of indicating to the sender of an email that their message was valuable to you, or assessing whether others found it useful. But an enterprise social network typically allows every contribution to be rated in some way, and these ratings summarised to highlight the most popular or valuable content.

However, such feedback systems are also subject to the conventions of courtesy, or perhaps more accurately, the fear of causing offence.  The world of consumer social networking provides several examples of this. I recently read an article about a guy who bought an apartment solely to rent out on Airbnb. One of his conclusions was:

I don’t ever leave guests bad reviews in case they retaliate and leave me a bad review in turn. I don’t know how Airbnb can fix this, but the current review system is definitely broken.

Of course, this is nothing new – eBay suffered from precisely the same problem for years before they tightened their feedback process. And LinkedIn’s endorsement feature still seems to be overrun with entirely inaccurate endorsements, perhaps given in the hope of receiving something similar in return.

So for content feedback systems to be successful, they need a little more honesty and a little less courtesy than we typically see in business communication. My company’s enterprise social network, Clearvale, solicits feedback on content through a simple question, “was this helpful?” Yet people still (perhaps deliberately) misinterpret this question – on several occasions I have heard the justification that “it wasn’t helpful to me, but I’m sure it would be helpful to someone else, otherwise the author wouldn’t have posted it, so I voted ‘yes’”. However community-spirited and courteous this attitude is, it really doesn’t help. We should aim to use content feedback to work out which content is likely to be helpful to other people within the company. So if 10 people in the marketing department indicate something was useful, it would be reason to assume that other people in marketing might also find it useful. But if the finance department then votes something as useful based on the “wasn’t useful to me, but might be for others” approach, this sort of analysis becomes very difficult.

But still, like Airbnb and eBay users, employees are often reluctant to leave anything that can be perceived as negative feedback. In one month on our social network, there were 13638 “yes” answers to “was this helpful?” and only 262 “no” answers. The vast majority of network members never voted “no”.  This is why many organisations prefer simpler “like” mechanisms for rating content, but this really doesn’t solve the problem. It just leaves the author unable to tell the difference between a reader deliberately not “liking” because they didn’t find it useful and forgetting to express an opinion at all.

There are some curious cultural differences at work here. Everyone recognises the stereotype of the over-polite British diner in a restaurant complaining constantly to their friends about their meal, but when asked by the waiter if everything is OK, they’ll say “yes, great, thank you!” But in business communication, the British (and the rest of Europe) tend to be much more forthright in their criticisms than Americans or Asians. There are probably all sorts of factors in this, not least the relatively strong laws in Europe protecting employee rights. Without going into all of that, it’s important to recognise that different parts of a global organisation are likely to respond to a feedback system differently. When presented with a scale of 1-5 to rate something, it will be relatively rare for a British voter to give a 1 or 5 score, whereas an American typically has no such reservations.

An even bigger problem is people avoiding the issue by not using the content feedback system at all. During or after elections, it is often said that if you don’t vote, then you have no right to complain about the government that was elected. The same is true with business communication – don’t complain if you’re receiving irrelevant information if you didn’t provide honest feedback that accurately reflects how valuable content was to you.

Content feedback can go a long way to improving the efficiency of business communication by cutting out “contentless responses”. It gives the author a clear indication of how valuable their contribution is considered, without adding extra burden to their overflowing inbox. But to be successful, feedback systems need widespread participation, a little more honesty, and a little less courtesy.

Business Communication Karma

knowledgeshareAround 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.

Applications of Enterprise Social Networking Across The Whole Company

For social networking initiatives inside an organisation to succeed, they need to support real work. They need to help employees become more productive at the tasks they were already performing, rather than becoming yet another communication channel to keep up with. The benefits of enterprise social networking can be applied across the whole company – here are 20 examples across 5 departments.

ESN Across The Whole Company