New Communications Channels Benefit from Corporate Strategy

In September, Unified Communications headset and accessory maker Plantronics released a study called “How We Work: Communication Trends of Business Professionals” looking at the ways business users’ communications habits have changed over the last five years. I agree with the overall gist of Plantronics' findings—that the old-guard tools are more important than ever—but I wonder if a lack of emphasis on new forms of communication is more related to corporate stricture or lack of vision rather than users’ willingness to try new things.

Plantronics unsurprisingly found that e-mail and the telephone remain the communications tools most often considered essential for business success and productivity. On the other hand, tools such as IM (Instant Messaging), video conferencing/collaboration or social networking may have a time or a place in the users’ arsenals, but aren’t deemed critical.

One area that I found lacking in the study was an evaluation of which tools had more importance for internal corporate communications versus external communications with customers and partners. For me personally, I find the communications tool set to be drastically different for each silo as well as for my personal life, and I suspect that would also be the case for the survey respondents.

When I started working at eWEEK seven years ago, e-mail was by far my preferred mode of communications, but over the years I have found that preference has waned significantly. A quick examination of my mailbox year-over-year shows that my e-mail usage peaked in 2006 and has been declining since, down about 40 percent from peak for both inbound and outbound mail volume.

As eWEEK Labs consolidated into a single office, e-mails among team members have been replaced by impromptu face-to-face meetings and instant messaging. And the adoption of self-service Web tools for our content management system has reduced the importance of e-mail for our editorial workflow.

However, these internal developments wouldn’t affect external communications with our partners and customers—vendors with story pitches and readers—but the decline is almost as prominent there as well (around 25 percent). Much of that decline can be attributed to my re-energized appreciation for the phone for external communications, due largely to the switch to a hosted VOIP (voice over IP) system two years ago. Whereas I found our old TDM phone system pretty inflexible, our new system allowed me to set things up to have access to incoming calls, whether at my desk, in the lab or on the go. As a result, I’m much more likely to be able to answer a call now.

Conversely, in my personal life, I never use the phone and prefer not to use e-mail at all. Instead, I find that Facebook, IM and SMS text messaging are by far the primary means of keeping in touch with my friends and loved ones.

Companies that never formulate a cohesive strategy around those channels of communication used extensively for employees for personal reasons, but do passively encourage their use, will find adoption sporadic and ad hoc. If not everyone within the company is on board, the communication channel becomes fractured, with some employees left out of the loop because communication needs to be passed another way.

For instance, if many people within the company use public Instant Messaging, but the employee base is splintered between AIM, Yahoo, GoogleChat, and nothing at all, while the corporation doesn't maintain a directory of IM contact aliases anyway, how much value does the service have to the company as whole? Small teams will benefit from the flexibility provided by the channel, but it will be hard to extend that value further

While there may be more ways to reach users and employees than ever before, it is incumbent upon the company to build a cohesive strategy to make use of those tools. Otherwise, their use will never translate to companywide cost savings or productivity gains.

Plantronics’ study is available for download here .