Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 20;   May 15, 2024: Should I Write or Should I Call?

Should I Write or Should I Call?

by

After we recognize the need to contact a colleague or colleagues to work out a way to move forward, we next must decide how to make contact. Phone? Videoconference? Text message? There are some simple criteria that can help with such decisions.
Typing a text message on a smartphone

Typing a text message on a smartphone. With a few exceptions for larger phones, there isn't much screen space available for anything more complicated than a text message. If your conversation requires support in the form of diagrams or images, detail is limited. Image by niekverlaan, courtesy Pixabay.

Before the arrival of the Internet, and before text messaging, the choice of how to contact a colleague could be based on urgency. The more urgent the need for an exchange, the more likely we would be to choose telephone over snail mail. It was a clear choice. But today, with wide availability of email and the various forms of text messaging, the advantages of one medium compared to the others are unclear.

For example, a text message can get a quicker response than telephone if your correspondent is in a meeting or in some environment that isn't voice friendly, such as an airplane or a dentist's office waiting room. But telephone can be quicker if your correspondent is engaged in some activity that isn't keyboard-friendly, such as driving a car or working out on a climbing wall.

Some commonly used criteria for choosing a communication medium

What criteria are available to guide the choice between a text-based medium, a voice medium like telephone, or some form of video connection? Some criteria are obvious:

  • The amount of ambient noise present in the respective environments of the participants
  • How safely all participants can attend to composing or reading text
  • The importance of reference material needed for full participation in the exchange
  • The comparison between the time each participant has available for the exchange, and the time required to carry on that exchange

Interactive exchanges

One more criterion that provides guidance for many situations is the need to interact. Interactive exchanges have two distinguishing characteristics:

Turn-taking
In an Today, with wide availability of email and
the various forms of text messaging, the
advantages of one medium compared
to the others are unclear
interactive exchange, the participants take turns making contributions. That is not to say that each participant gets equal time, or that interruptions never occur. Rather, generally, the choice of who speaks next is orderly — controlled either formally by a facilitator, or informally by custom or courtesy. Generally, there is one and only one speaker at a time. [Jepson 2005]
If, by contrast, speaker choice is chaotic, with multiple people speaking at once, the exchange is less interactive, because chaos interferes with the second characteristic of interactive exchanges, namely, threading.
Threading
A threaded conversation is one in which the current topic is clearly defined. Contributors generally stay on-topic. The conversation might have multiple threads, but the transition from one thread to another is clear to all, and usually controlled.
Threading results in a conversational structure in which most contributions are shaped, in part, by the content of the collection of all previous contributions to that thread.
The first attribute of the interactive exchange — turn-taking — is what distinguishes it from lectures, webinars, and to some extent, all-hands meetings. The second attribute — threading — enables the participants to efficiently and effectively develop ideas and solve problems collaboratively.

Indicators of the need for interaction

Interactive exchanges can be expensive. Because they require real-time connection between participants, the infrastructure involved can be pricey. Specifically, the more interactive media include videoconference, teleconference, and telephone. The less interactive media include text-based messaging such as text message, instant message, email, and snail mail. In between are wikis and other collaboration media.

But a factor that contributes even more to costs is the time of the people involved. During the conversation, they must be fully attentive to the conversation. They cannot (and should not) do anything else. This requirement creates opportunity costs and scheduling problems.

For these reasons, we use interactive exchanges sparingly. To do that we need to know the indicators that an interactive exchange is needed and justified. There are many such indicators, but three stand out in my experience.

Controversial subject matter
Controversies require resolution, and resolution requires debate, which is an inherently interactive activity. A medium that supports interaction well is a necessary prerequisite for resolving controversies. Choosing a medium that doesn't support interaction well is equivalent to stifling debate. It risks a poor outcome.
Uneven distribution of relevant knowledge
When relevant knowledge is distributed unevenly, those who lack the knowledge are likely to be asking questions of those who possess it. These exchanges are inherently interactive. There are actually two objectives. The group must both distribute knowledge and drive out misconceptions and prejudice.
Elevated probability of resource contention
If the group is engaged in developing a deliverable or executing an action plan, one additional condition — resource contention — can create a need for interactive communication. Any resource that's in short supply, or any individual with skills in high demand, can become a bottleneck and an obstacle to the group's success. Interactive conversation might be a necessary step to resolving the contention.

Last words

If a successful result is expected to require interaction between the participants, they would do well to choose a medium for the exchange that supports question-and-answer, backtracking, interruptions, and all the other kinds of exchanges that we find in lively conversations. The more closely the medium can mimic face-to-face conversation, the more likely it is to support interaction. Go to top Top  Next issue: Rescheduling Collaborative Work  Next Issue

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Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Jepson 2005]
Kevin Jepson. "Conversations — and Negotiated Interaction — in Text and Voice Chat Rooms," Language Learning & Technology 9:3, (2005) pp.79-98. Available here. Retrieved 29 April 2024. Back

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