Its the paradox of our wired and wireless networks that we have more ways than ever to get in touch with someone, but also more ways than ever to fail to reach them and to waste a huge amount of time in trying to do so. A company called National Notification Networks, or NNN, has an alternative approach thats well worth exploring.
Our communications are becoming increasingly structured: "I need to get at least one of these three people to agree to represent our team at a meeting this afternoon," for example, or "I need to be able to prove that these 1,000 customers all received a notice about this potential problem with our product today."
These are the kinds of tasks that ought to be made easy to describe and automatic to execute, especially when a complex combination of communication tasks can be planned at some leisure for an emergency scenario that requires them to be carried out quickly and correctly. NNN is doing just that.
I visited the companys Glendale, Calif., headquarters (just north of worldwide disaster capital Los Angeles); I found a convenient and capable system—probably not unique, but mature and able to anticipate every imagined requirement that I could come up with during discussions with company officials.
Ive commented in the past that e-mail is a terrible way to do many of the tasks for which people nonetheless use it—because its there, its cheap and its a hammer that can hit any kind of communication nail.
Its painful, though, to watch any effort at taking a quick poll of more than a small group by e-mail: "Of Monday lunch, Tuesday dinner or Thursday breakfast, whats the best time for us to meet?" The answers come back, some as replies to the sender only, some as replies to the entire group. Some come back as new messages with a different subject line, such as "What about Friday?", which, of course, wont show up when you sort on message titles to consolidate the answers youve received.
An NNN user who wants to ask the "best time" question—or any multiple-choice question—can simply list the possible answers and dispatch the query to a new or pre-existing list.
Theres no need to know, or care, whether any given person actually gets the message via e-mail or cellular text message or voice-synthesized phone call (with cues to press the appropriate number key to indicate preference).
Logging in to the senders NNN account will find a Web page ready to show the number of answers received and the preferences stated. I call that addictive convenience.
Less obvious, but perhaps the greatest benefit of this kind of approach, is greater flexibility in defining communication success.
Networks have to be sized for peak rates, not averages, and communications are initiated by people in ways that lead to high peak-to-average ratios.
I suspect that many workers read and respond to e-mail messages at the beginning of the day, after lunch and at days end, stressing networks with thrice-daily bulges of bits.
Introducing a management layer such as NNNs has the potential to repackage messages by desired delivery time, rather than treating every e-mail as an immediate-delivery demand—as is the case for all common e-mail systems.
Failover strategies, such as "send this message by voice to the cellular number if the e-mail isnt read in the next half-hour," can stop being expensive and error-prone tasks for a person and instead become automatic invocations of stored rules.
The initial impetus for talking with a company such as NNN might be the need for reliable emergency response; I suspect the relationship often quickly expands into a much broader adoption of a more systematic and cost-effective approach to an organizations communications in general.
Too much of our communication technology is instant when it doesnt need to be and human-dependent when it shouldnt be.
You could roll your own improvements with scripts and macros and build your own off-site hardened facility to house the system, but this is the kind of infrastructure thats ideally suited to outsourcing—if not to NNN, then to someone, and soon.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.