Dana Mattioli’s article in the Wall Street Journal provides examples of digital communication faux pas (e.g., receiving a loving instant message while your screen is being shared, lettuce stuck in your teeth becoming part of the company video archives – possibly even in high-def), and suggestions for how to avoid them. I’ve certainly done embarrassing things in meetings – for example, delivering an amusing (if I say so myself) “one-liner” that would be fine face-to-face, and not recorded – but the stakes go up if recording is turned on, or if you’re not sure who is in your audience. While some of the comments to the WSJ article argue that too much weight is being put on delivery over content, the fact is that the perception of the content is what matters – and perception is a combination of the content and the medium. Technology (the medium) changes communication understanding – but not always in obvious ways:
  • Perceptions of “bandwidth” or the perceived richness of the medium can vary by the communicators’ experience with the technology, the task, and with each other (Timmerman & Madhavapeddi, 2008; Carlson & Zmud, 1999).
  • Some media have greater perceived seriousness – e.g., do you send a note of sympathy to a friend via email, regular mail, or face-to-face?
  • Managers make media choices based on positive versus negative content, self-presentation, etc. (Sheer & Chen, 2004)
Media choices are also made based on attempts to manage the behaviors of others. Recently I’ve heard of video conferencing being used (versus just audio conferencing) when the leader(s) have felt there was too little focus on the meeting given participants’ additional focus on email, instant messaging, and the like. Rather than directly address the issue of multitasking during meetings, there seems to be a belief that by forcing people to appear as if they are listening, that they will listen. (See my earlier post on laptops in face-to-face meetings for more thoughts on managing technology and meeting behavior.) The need to know how to write a formal business letter has been reduced given word processing wizards to help us with the formatting. However, we are not to the point where there are “wizards” to coach us through dressing for video conferences; or to help us make good choices around when to communicate via email, IM, a text message, or a Facebook post. Many companies are likely moving in the direction of setting company standards, or at least providing guidelines. However, it’s difficult to set guidelines around this complex topic. The complexity comes from a vast array of sources:
  • the technology continues to evolve
  • there are differences in audience expectations (based on experience, company culture, country culture, etc.)
  • we may not know how recorded information will ultimately be used
  • ... and feedback on the outcomes of our choices may be reduced given the media we are using, thus limiting our ability to learn and make adjustments based on that feedback
I suspect that awareness and a focus on making sense of the particular setting will provide more benefit than rigid rules. I welcome discussion based on how best to make these decisions, and how to know to make changes based on the outcomes of the decisions you’ve made. Links to public statements of company guidelines are also appreciated.