As we consider the wide range of communication tools available to the knowledge worker, we can divide them into those which primarily support “push-based” information flows, and those which support “pull-based” flows. This distinction was most prominently described in The Power of Pull by John Hagel, John Seeley Brown and Lang Davison.
Most of the business communication tools we use today are “push” tools, where the sender of the message decides who will receive it. Email is the classic example of this; the sender of the message chooses who to put on the To and Cc lines. The recipient gets no choice about whether they receive the message or not, and anyone who is not copied on the message doesn’t even know of its existence. The sender is firmly in control. Instant messaging, SMS and even phone calls are all examples of push.
In contrast, a “pull” information flow puts the recipient in control by letting them choose what information they want to receive from everything that is available to them. This is typically the way activity streams in social networks behave. In your Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn feed you choose which people or topics to follow, and you can read as many or as few of postings as you wish. If you don’t log in for a month, you don’t come back to overflowing inbox, you just rejoin at the top of the activity feed.
Enterprise social networks (ESNs) apply the same principles inside an organisation, giving employees somewhere to share their knowledge with as a wide an audience as confidentiality allows. This pull-based environment allows information consumers to choose what they need, and when they need it. This is frequently, and quite correctly, quoted as one of the major advantages of ESNs. We will consider ESNs in more detail later in the series.
Advocates of ESNs (and I count myself in their number) see the transition from push to pull as the “holy grail” of business communication. Indeed, this is a central tenet of the Business Communication Revolution, because it puts a knowledge worker back in control of how they consume information. However, an all-pull environment is not without its own problems.
In consumer social networks like Facebook, the all-pull model works well. If you miss the latest hilarious video of a cat doing something funny, it really doesn’t matter. You can dip in and out of the news feed without any risk of missing something vitally important. The same is not necessarily true in an ESN, so it is a mistake simply to transfer the Facebook model to a business environment. While some of the information that passes through your activity feed is nice-to-know that may be useful to refer to later, some of it is much more time-sensitive. If your manager asked you to complete a task by the end of the day, it would rather more serious if you missed this in your activity stream.
So, for effective business communication we need the right mix of push and pull mechanisms, and we need to teach employees when and how to use each one. But “learning to pull” is far from simple for many employees because push has been so deeply engrained in their habits.
As an author in a pull environment, perhaps the hardest lesson to learn is that it is no longer your decision who will read what you write. You have a duty to make your content available to everyone who is allowed to see it. This is often misunderstood as “make your content available to everyone”. A pull environment doesn’t override confidentiality concerns – it remains the author’s responsibility to make sure that only the people who are allowed the content can see it. One common objection to sharing content more widely is “no one else needs to see it” – in a pull environment, that is no longer the author’s decision. If you think about it, it is appallingly arrogant for an author to presume he or she knows precisely who will find their content useful. How can they possibly know?
Also, as an information consumer you have to take greater responsibility to keep yourself informed. Your inbox overload has been addressed by allowing you to pull the information you need rather than having it pushed at you, but your side of the deal is to ensure you make the effort to pull the information you do need. Failure to do so is effectively “wilful ignorance” – deliberately avoiding finding out about something so that you can claim you know nothing about it.
You also need to make sure you don’t over-consume. A pull-based information environment is similar to an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you eat too little, you will starve; if you eat too much you will make yourself ill. Neither extreme is good for you, so you need to learn how to consume the right amount – neither wilful ignorance nor spending time consuming content “just because it’s there” will help your productivity. If you find that your activity stream is full of content you’re not interested in, it’s your responsibility to use the stream filters more effectively.
Push and pull both have a role to play in business communication. Too much push leads to information overload; too little leads to lack of accountability. The key to success is getting the balance right.