Social Media Conference

March 31, 2007

I’ve been keeping my eyes open for conferences dealing with social media and communications and this one–Authentic Communications – Examining Social Media & The Online Conversations–seems to fit the bill. I would love to go, but it’s in New York, so that’s not likely to happen.

One thing: in their overview description of the conference they say that “everyone is on a quest to be perceived as authentic” through their communications efforts. What about ditching perceptions and just being authentic?


The Perils of Office Design, or: How I’m Learning to Love Our Small Office

March 30, 2007

This has been an interesting, and at times tough, week.

Our branch just moved offices. Like most office moves–and work in the public service long enough and you realize that moving is as much a part of life as breathing–this one was fraught with concern. People rarely like change. But this is particularly true when the change means no more outdoor patio (with Spring finally here!), no more coffee shop within the same building, and no more spacious, somewhat-private office space. This last point is the clincher: we are now condensed into almost half the space (I don’t have the exact measurements) as before.

To help take the edge off we’ve been provided with the most modern furniture in the organization (this includes Ikea-like desks, a padded-top rolling file cabinet that doubles as a guest chair and stainless steel articulating monitor arms) and our walls have been painted modern colours that suggest “living room” more than “board room.”

These are all creative touches that I think people appreciate, but given the work we do, in the long run colour schemes and minimalist furniture mean far less than having the privacy and breathing room to be able to think creatively. While it might be argued that collaboration may increase due to our close proximity to one another there is a penalty to all this closeness.

“The opposite side of the collaboration coin is the need to concentrate at work. This requires a quiet setting with relatively few distractions. Such an environment is particularly important for knowledge creation activities—thinking, writing, programming, designing, and so forth.”

The above quote from a Harvard Business School article pinpoints the issue. If people are expected and required to think creatively and strategically the environment within which this thinking takes place plays a critical role. Believing and promoting otherwise, whatever the justification or rationale, is disingenuous at best.

However, it’s one week in, and there’s plenty of change yet to come. Come to think of it, our branch would make a very good anthropological case study on the socio-cultural dynamics of office life in the 21st century. Or, maybe, just a really good reality show.

One final note: the Babble is a privacy tool our (or any) office may want to explore. This thing looks fascinating and insane all at the same time. Be sure to check out the video demo to see what I mean.

Confusing Newspaper Layout

March 27, 2007

Bad Layout in TC My local newspaper published this today. Does anyone else find this choice of headline and (non-related) photo poorly conceived? Does the brown dog not suddenly take on a whole different meaning when displayed prominently below a headline about sewage treatment? What could they have been thinking? Maybe to some readers the chocolate dog will represent nothing more than, well, a chocolate dog. But in Victoria, where raw-sewage debates rage and Mr. Floatie is a local celebrity, it’s entirely plausible that some coalition or another could have created a new mascot for their sewage campaign. Why not a chocolate lab?

I wonder what sort of reaction the folks at Rogers Chocolates had when they flipped through the paper this morning? They must be relieved that they decided not to sculpt a caterpillar.

Further Thoughts On E-Mail

March 22, 2007

Yesterday I wrote about the trouble with e-mail and how in the workplace it has become a substitute for more personal forms of communication. I’ve been thinking about this issue and how there are times when e-mail does function well as a proxy for face-to-face discussion. I think these instances are uncommon, particularly in the business world, but they are possible.

Quite a few years ago, I met Amy at a photography class at UVic. We both took an interest in each other’s work–I was really drawn to her free-form style, a direct contrast to my sharply defined efforts–and we became instant friends. At the time, both Amy and I were provincial government employees, which meant we sat in front of monitors all day. As a result, e-mail became our primary mode of communication. Over many, many months we sent long, elaborate e-mails to each other, discussing pretty much everything, often baiting each other with provocative topics as we got more comfortable and daring. It was fantastic! I’ve said to Amy, years later, our friendship very much established, that if it wasn’t for e-mail we may not have become such good friends.

E-mail served us so well because we both enjoyed delving deeply into topics and picking apart at nuance. This isn’t new territory for the written word, of course, as any number of journals and long-form reporting demonstrate, but it is uncommon for e-mail. (Personally, e-mail as experienced with Amy very closely resembles my communication style during face-to-face conversation with certain people.) This sort of e-mail experience requires a certain amount of trust, respect and time, and a person willing and able to maintain the momentum. And in most business applications, I’d question whether any of these criteria apply. Not everyone enjoys a good debate or discussion, electronically or otherwise, and that’s fine. And in day-to-day work there’s really little place for missives longer than a few sentences; I’m sure no one would appreciate an e-mail treatise on corporate values by their manager! But in certain situations, e-mail doesn’t have to be the slave to management directives or badly designed invites to staff retirement parties. It can achieve a lot more.

Digital Communications Claims Another Victim

March 21, 2007

Mark Evans–former National Post reporter, current VP at b5media–provides a perfect way for me to launch my blog: he is getting off the e-mail/IM bandwagon. In becoming a “digital communications junkie,” he’s realized the time has come to drop the keyboard and pick up the phone. Relying too heavily, or exclusively, on e-mail is one of the things you hear about at communications conferences and workshops. Picking up the phone is usually considered the antidote to this problem. As Mark says:

Rather than interrupt someone by calling them, we take the easy way out by sending an e-mail or IM. Unless the message involves a simple statement (“I’m leaving work now”) or requires a simple answer (“I’ll be there in seven minutes”), you should talk to someone. Far too often, conversations that require intonation, nuance, diplomacy and subtlety are frustratingly ineffective. Yet we insist on having these digital conversations even though we know many of them are not terribly good or productive.

There’s definitely a lot to be said about calling someone, or, better yet, talking to them face-to-face. We’ve all cheated and fired off an e-mail when a call would have been the better option. Worse still: the e-mails you send to the recipient sitting in the very next cubicle!

The bigger problem, though, may be how the modern office is designed. In the typical cube farm workers sit in their pens and with the little amount of real privacy offered by their fabric walls retreat within the gentle glow of their monitors. Electronic communications easily replace the traditional interpersonal channels. We’ve all been there.