What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

July 31, 2006

6 Min Read

Providing users with the right information, at the right time, in the right context, has been a holy grail for IT organizations for many years. Indeed, a litany of technologies (e.g., network file servers, e-mail, content management systems, search engines, portals, and workspaces) has been deployed over many years as part of a chivalrous quest.

It has turned however, into a somewhat never-ending endeavor, with each set of technology tools only able to claim partial victory.

Content volumes continue to grow unabatedly and user access to information grows broader day-by-day.  Simultaneously, the channels organizations rely on to communicate continue to diversify as well (e.g., blogs, instant messaging, IP telephony, and RSS) are all in different stages of adoption.  While additional channels provide people with more options for how they want to interact with information, users must have control over the volume, frequency and intensity of information flowing through those channels. Without such capabilities, user attention to the world around them will become evermore fragmented and their focus on activities at-hand will suffer from constant interruption.   

Clearly no single technology is going to completely address issues related to information overload and underload. Better information management can make content and media more organized and accessible. Better process management can align tasks and workflow with corresponding information sources. These best practices establish the scaffolding of policies, rules and roles for users to work within. Users however, still need to adapt their own work practices within that scaffolding to efficiently multitask, resolve conflicts, handle exceptions, coordinate activities, negotiate and brainstorm with others.  This often requires users to discover, subscribe, categorize, monitor, and track updates to a range of content and media sources. Some of these sources might be uniquely applicable and not widely known beyond a subset of users leveraging the information.  Providing tools, applications and services that permit users to customize and manage their own communication channels is a key empowerment tactic to help users to help themselves. It can also act as a feedback loop to absorb new content and media sources into those formal process and information management frameworks.

From a user’s perspective, it is important to understand the role of "context zones" (refer to Figure 1 below), into which information shifts in and out of over time (based on a variety of factors). Each type of context zone suggests a different communication model that enables users to optimally be aware of, and interact with, information related to their activities. Below I outline how such zones might be understood in terms of information delivery and communication:

•    Foreground: Information in this zone is directly relevant to the activity that has the user’s attention and primary focus, or fits a user profile that includes topics the person is interested in (with an implied immediacy in terms of awareness and delivery timeliness).     

•    Peripheral: Information in this zone is strongly-to-moderately associated to a set of activities that the user participates in or to their profile (exclusive of the current activity). While there is likely discretion in terms of how and when the user needs to be aware of the information, there is an implied desire for it to be readily “glanceable”.

•    Ambient: Information users should find interesting but could just as easily ignore, is associated with this zone. The information could be tertiary, having a no strongly patterned relationship to any activity. But it also might have some intriguing synergy with, or some discernable influence on, activities or other user interests. Communication here is more informal, with user no guarantee that users will divert attention and interact with the information.   

•    Horizon: Information forming at its early stages that might have some latent relevancy in the future is affiliated with this zone. Users might be interested in cycling through ever so often as part of general awareness, exploration of outlier data or emergent trend analysis.



Figure 1. Communication Context Zones.

Communication methods also need to adapt based on context:

•    Forefront: Communication to workers about information integral to current activities is at the forefront of the users computing experience. These activities represent the focus point of a user’s attention so communication channels should be integrated within the tools, applications and services that support those activities. Updates or other alerts and notifications about changes in information or new sources should be proactive, and disruptive if necessary, to ensure users are properly notified.

•    Peripheral: In this zone, communication is still proactive, but not intrusive. Information of this type is additive to activities that they user is engaged in but are not currently the current focus point. Users should be signaled about changes in information or new sources of information however since such state-change may require users to switch activities. Communication channels should be readily accessible (e.g., a click away) or persistently displayed in a discrete manner (e.g., via a tag cloud, an icon in the Windows system tray or other type of resizable display area).    

•    Ambient: Communication about information changes or new sources is presented in response to the user making a conscious effort to check on this type of communication.  Potentially, there could be a cumulative signal to users that summarizes what is contained within these channels. Users likely check channels handling this type of information on an irregular schedule. Due to other attention demands, it is possible that the channel will be ignored for periods of time. The channel however remains valuable to users. It is likely that they will serendipitously discover insightful information related to activities or professional interests and want to interact with peers on such findings (e.g., brainstorming).

•    Horizon: Communication related to this type of information is also in response to the users making a conscious effort. It is doubtful that there is any proactive signaling to users. In all likelihood, the information is not related to any activity but somewhat associated with the user’s organizational role and professional interests. Communication channels might present a digest of information on topics that would be categorized as background information.  

While this sounds very academic, it provides a conceptual grounding for how strategists can look at the vast array of tools and think about the environment they are creating. With each new tool, at some point there is diminishing return in regard to communication efficiency and effectiveness. Instead of throwing more tools at users, perhaps we need to think more about frameworks that maintain a loosely coupled relationship between information and communication channel. At that point, users can select their preferred interaction method (e.g., e-mail, RSS, etc.).  Users need more control over their attention and ability to focus on the activities-at-hand. Instead of more tools, let users pick from a set of tools based on their preferred work style and the nature of the activity. For this to work, we cannot lock information into a particular channel.

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