Understanding is only achieved in synchronous communication.

“We are just too busy to listen.”


18 February 2005

Understanding seems only to genuinely be achieved in synchronous communication argues John Barben in Telling but not listening.

If true, this would be bad news indeed for all writers of books throughout the ages. But John’s point is more interesting than the sound-bite may suggest, and relates to a difference between large and small organizations. Broadly, he suggests that his experience is that small organizations are better at listening, and if you want to achieve effective communication in a large group you must talk face to face, or the digital equivalents of telephones, video conferencing, etc.

At one level this is not a surprising observation. In large organizations there is too much communication for the average person to keep up with, which means we are not really listening to the message, but only skimming it. You would expect to number of messages received by a member of a group to increase with the number of people in the group (~n), or possibly with the number of sub-groups within the organization (about ~n!). We are just too busy to listen.

Our experience suggests that to achieve success with a collaboration or social software project you absolutely need two things. The first is effective communication. This is about more than just the amount of communication. It is about engaging communication, and it is hard work and takes a determined effort. The second is to start small. You just can’t communicate enough to get engagement and buy-in for a “big bang” implementation for something as value-changing as a collaboration project, except in a small group. Start with maybe 20-50 people. Build a couple of groups like that. Then integrate the groups.