Amidst the search for a better set of tools for business communication, it’s important to recognise that the greatest obstacle to improvement may actually be the users of the tools, not the tools themselves. Email has become so deeply ingrained in most peoples’ working habits that any sort of change is likely to meet with some level of resistance. They may complain bitterly about their overflowing email inbox, but for many it has become something they “love to hate”.
Andrew McAfee wrote about this in back in 2006, referencing John Gourville’s earlier research to conclude that any system seeking to replace email needs to be perceived as at least nine times better than email to compensate for the average consumer’s aversion to loss.
While Gourville’s research concerned consumer products, it is clearly applicable to users of business communication tools as well, although probably not to the same extent. Whereas Gourville says “we need to stop thinking about consumers as highly rational evaluators of the old vs the new products, lining up pros and cons of each in mental tables and then selecting the winner”, one would hope that businesses do indeed apply rational evaluations of old and new products. Yet McAfee’s article was written nearly 7 years ago, and still email dominates business communication despite the emergence of so many alternatives.
One factor in this is the so-called “consumerization of the enterprise”, where an increasingly computer-literate workforce is applying its own consumer behaviour and expectations to enterprise software. 15 years ago, most employees’ main contact with computers was in the office – now they typically have more powerful systems at home (or even in their pocket) than they do on their desks at work. This trend is well-documented and has forced enterprise software vendors to improve usability and design of their products. But in a way, this is nothing new – employees have always been consumers.
A short linguistic diversion. If you’ve been reading this series closely, you will have noticed that it is written in British English. While I try to avoid British idioms that may confuse “International English” speakers, I always try to use British English spelling and grammar. Over the years, this has led to me learning a lot more about the differences between British and American English, and one of the differences I find most interesting is the way British English allows collective nouns to take either singular or plural verbs, depending on the context, whereas American English demands a singular verb. This means that British English allows me to write “the company are looking at new business communication tools”, while American English would require “the company is…”. This linguistic difference highlights an important question about the nature of a business – is the company a single entity, or is it the sum of the people who work for it? The answer, of course, is “both”.
Therefore, any successful introduction of new business tools has to appeal both to the corporate entity, and to the individual users with their consumer characteristics. Presenting a new tool that saves the company money but is hated by employees is possible, but is likely to cause widespread disruption. Employees will constantly blame the tool for lowering productivity, missing important announcements and failing to complete tasks. Conversely, letting employees choose a new tool that they find easy to use, but has no demonstrable business value is unlikely to win support of management; indeed, this is what has happened with some companies’ introductions of enterprise social networks, as described earlier in this series. And allowing employees too much freedom to choose new tools can lead to the fragmentation of company knowledge, also discussed earlier in the series.
So for a new communication tool to be successfully introduced into a business, clear answers to the following questions are required:
- Does it save the company money, or increase productivity?
- Does it complement or replace existing communication tools, or is it yet another communication channel to manage?
- What are the problems that employees encounter that the new tool is seeking to fix?
- What are the benefits to individual employees? Does it save them time or make them more productive?
- How will employees learn the new tool? Is it intuitive, or will they require training?
The answers don’t necessarily need to demonstrate a nine times improvement on what’s already there, but they do need to show sufficient benefits for both the company and the individual employees to override the fear of change that each of us inherit from our consumer persona.