This is just a quick post to expand on something I started thinking about while working through the exploration stage of a large strategy project we’re developing for a client. It’s pretty much half-baked, but I wanted to throw it out there to see if it resonated with anyone else.

The issue of signal-to-noise is a no-brainer in the mass market – for every useful bit of information you’re interested in, you must wade through a mountain of stuff you couldn’t care less about. If the ratio is really out of whack, you never get to the stuff you want to or should, and you abandon the channel – it’s just too frustrating and useless.

That last part also has real resonance for the enterprise. When the noise outweighs the signal, the system stops being functional because people stop being able to productively use it. Who out there gets 300+ emails a day? Many of which contain documents that you are asked to review? Who could possibly keep up with all of this in a meaningful way? A number of senior execs I know at some of the largest companies in the world confess to barely being able to keep up with this firehose of information. No matter what kind of process they employ, it all boils down to one thing: learning which communications are safe to ignore.

Is it time to truly re-think the way that information moves through teams and the nature of responsibility for deliverables and decisions? Instead of project managers or team leaders or executives pushing the information at you that they think you need, perhaps we, as executives and workers, should be responsible for finding and reviewing the data we know we need.

Is this plausible? Is it possible to slowly shift from a predominantly reactive communications culture to a proactive one, in which people seek the data they require? Of course there are many situations in which you don’t know what you don’t know, so information still needs to be pushed out – but maybe not quite so much if it.

For this to work effectively it seems to me that a number of tools need to be in place, including a robust collaboration platform and a holistic enterprise-wide taxonomy that would allow cross-functional users to sort and search data effectively.

Rather than being told I need to read something, the responsibility would shift and I would need to find and read the information I require to make effective decisions or keep projects going. I’m not just talking about using things like wikis and other platforms to facilitate collaboration – that’s not news. I’m talking about thinking about how social media tools can fundamentally change the nature of internal business communication from push to pull.

Once again, another trend that may very well be soon swimming upstream from the marketplace to the enterprise (which is another concept that deserves a post all its own).


  1. Nice post Maggie. To add to the conversation you have started, I recommend this ( vid with Ross Mayfield of SocialText speaking.

  2. Van

    I think that you are right in regards to the need to have an efficient way to process social media from the seemingly infinite sources. I deal with social media on a daily basis, and breaking through to all the information and contributing and collaborating in a meaningful way is a demanding, yet rewarding process.

  3. Interesting post, and true to boot. I see a couple of interesting threads here that I would love to see drawn out further:

    The idea of a more proactive communication culture is an important direction that social media can probably help with a lot. Of course, to be able to go out and find information, the information has to exist. Currently only the most proactive create a significant amount of information. I wonder if we can significantly lower these barriers to entry with better designed and communal collaboration platforms. I’m hopeful that we’re already starting to see this.

    On another topic, talk of holistic taxonomies always worries me a little bit. I’d hate for this to be a designed taxonomy. Hopefully it is organic, like tags, which are pretty reliable for search simply because of the massive use. With less highly used environments the taxonomy system might have to help searchers by clustering like taxonomic terms. I think it’s pretty important for participation that we find a way for users to build and use their own taxonomies.

  4. Such a great post! The concept of push/pull is very important here. I agree an enterprise strategy is required for this. It opens the Knowledge Management conversation with its technical and cultural and performance implications.

    I would love to facilitate a meeting of the minds on this conversation with a group of senior exec’s. I would offer my service ‘gratis’. Perhaps an Executive Breakfast? Let me know what you think. Cheers, Brenda

  5. In the spirit of half-baked thoughts, here are some that your post spawned.

    Personally, I would love to subscribe to the various projects, departents, clients, etc. that I am working on as an RSS feed. If I could do this it would probably cut my email down to roughly 20% of its current load, which would be manageable.

    I also think a serious survey in a specific enterprise of the relative uses of various forms of communication would be useful. So taking a look at all the various media from the standpoint of Urgency, Collaboration, Mobility, # of stakeholders, Synchronous/Non-synchronous, time-sensitivity, confidentiality, etc. For example, the way I work:

    Face to Face: High urgency, Highly collaborative, best used for head’s up, issues, high-level strategy planning, brainstorming and complicated problems.
    Voicemail: Very low urgency, non-collaborative, best used for me ignoring you.
    Email: Moderate Urgency, moderate collaboration, best used for assigning specific tasks, document review and where a record must be kept.

    I am sure there is a better way to frame this, but my suspicion is that most corporate cultures use various forms of communications, particularly email and meetings, for uses that can be better handled in other ways.

  6. What you’re talking about requires a radical shift in corporate culture and structure.

    Management becomes a much different process – ensuring people understand the rational & timelines for objectives, instead of focusing on managing tasks and task completion. The advantage is more empowered workers and a much more diverse information base for problem solving (which is vital in a globally competitive economy)– but it requires management that is open to new approaches which is a natural outcome of giving people diverse information and likely means managing boundary issues because that’s where the issues will arise. In doing that is shifts the skill sets manages require and possible changes the base of their authority.

    Assuming the cultural and management issues are addressed the choice of technologies arises as you point out. Toronto has some people who’ve done interesting work in areas such as work flow and RRS – pushing information and to building tacit networks which leverage expertise while not diluting responsibility. Others have done work on tagging as an adjunct to taxonomies – because it is low cost while recognizing that departments may use unique names for identical items because of the way they use the item. Further a field there is also starting to be some very interesting work using voice enabled web services to speed up information transfer within and between organizations.

    The thing I wonder though is how out-sourcing and collaboration align. It would seem to me that once companies have internal experience with collaboration approaches to project delivery that the issues quickly become trust and skill – and that is going to lead to a leaner corporation which leverages a network of trusted partners to reach its objectives.

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