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Understanding the Media of Internal Communication

This is the third and final follow-up to my first series of essays in the Sametab blog.

This one will be all about understanding all the different nuances of media used for internal communications. When I say nuances, I'm not talking about features, I'm referring to the implications, the incentives, and ultimately the consequences of using one tool or a particular set of tools versus the other. In other words, this is going to be a long, detailed dissertation into the details of how and why internal communication happens.

Before we start, I want to provide the right framing and do a small recap about everything I have talked about so far.

In my first essay “Manage by Context, not Control” I examined how the world has changed; why old workplace management techniques don’t hold anymore in today’s world and won't in the future. Specifically, I talked about how the world has changed under three fundamental vectors: (1) value creation vs. value capture, (2) specialization of skills and (3) excludability and physical proximity.

In the follow-up published last week (The Single Most Important Internal Email in the History of Amazon), I took the ball a little further and described why internal comms infrastructures are still an underappreciated source of leverage for creating impact. I gave the example of Bezos' mandate in 2002 and explained how that, among other factors, had enabled the creation of Amazon Web Services. I then clarified some concepts related to organizational structures and remote work that people often tend to conflate.

As I was reading through my last two pieces I realised there could be only one way to complete the series: a final zoom-in on the last and smallest unit: the Media of Internal Communications.

On to the write-up.

The Basics

As a company scales, it creates uncertainties.

The more people, and the more processes there are in an organization, the more complexities there are that need to be dealt with.

How do we solve uncertainties? Information. Information means resolution of uncertainties.

The more information is flowing through an organization the less uncertainties there are.

In small companies, information flows naturally and uncertainties tend to almost take care of themselves over time. As an organization starts to scale up, uncertainties multiply and what before was automatically solved, now has to be dealt in a more deliberate and conscious effort.

So on the one hand, organizations produce uncertainties as they evolve, and on the other, organizations resolve uncertainties by distributing information.

The effectiveness of internal communication could be determined as a function of how many uncertainties are solved versus how many are created over time.

Optimum efficiency is achieved when all the information produced goes to resolving uncertainties.

Realistically, that's not going to be the case, and the reason is that not all the information we produce is digested and understood as we had intended (we'll soon see how and why). We often think of information in terms of sensory input coming at us. But that’s not really information. Information isn’t what we’re told; it’s what we understand.

The Media

In order to produce and distribute information, organizations have to pick a medium. What's a medium? At its core, a medium is a firehose. The firehose moulds the content and depending on its shape, the nature of the information changes. Just as your content changes, so do your organization's capability to resolve uncertainties over time.

I've always seen confusion over tools, so I decided – before making any conclusion – to take a step back and analyse the current landscape using these four vectors:

1. Speed of information

2. Coverage of information

3. Signal/Noise ratio of information

4. Resolution of information


Speed of information

Speed of information means how fast a piece of information can be propagated throughout a system. The medium (not the content per se) is what determines how fast or how slow information can spread.

Some media are designed to propagate information very quickly, others are designed for the exact opposite, as they don't privilege velocity of information as an important trait. Let’s clarify with some examples.

Slack: Fast. Slack is designed to facilitate rapid information flow. Its firehose is built to privilege the "now" moment and to fulfill the function of making it very casual for users to participate and interact with it. Messages are short and interactions are thought to be quick and cognitively easy. Interactions are synchronous: easy to kick off but hard to resolve. (We'll see what I mean by hard to resolve later on).

On top of this, a complex layer of notifications accelerate distribution, making sure that the routes that let information percolate down to every edge of the organization, are always optimised to the extreme.

Email: Slow. Email isn't designed to facilitate rapid information distribution. In fact, quite the opposite. Emails are single shots. Interactions are asynchronous: they are hard to kick off but the upside is that they’re almost resolved immediately. (Think of "FYI" email where no work at all is required of the receiver).

Because of the asynchronous nature of email – there's no instantaneous interaction required – people are going through their inbox in their own time and at their own pace, and as a result of that information propagates very slowly.

If we draw a spectrum, at one end you have "real-time" communications, and at the opposite end you have something like emails.

Fast and synchronous on one side, slow and asynchronous on the other.



Coverage of information

Orthogonal to speed there is coverage of information. How far a medium is able to propagate the message throughout the system. The higher the coverage of the medium, the more people you are able to reach.

Slack: Low coverage. Temporally, the firehose privileges what's happening “now”, in the instant you're on Slack. The greater the number of people and time zones, the higher the chances that at any given time, something said in Slack will simply be missed by a good slice of your company.

For obvious reasons, the same firehose that privileges velocity also limits the reach of the message.

Email: High coverage. There's not much else to say here as this is a pretty straightforward example. People go through their inbox in their own time at their own pace, but chances are your messages will – sooner or later – be read by the recipients.




Back to our first example, if you had to draw the very same spectrum this time at one end you have Email, and at the opposite end you have something like Slack.


Signal/Noise ratio of information

Let's recap: information is how organizations resolve uncertainties. Information gets distributed through one or more media (the firehoses). The firehose not only shapes the nature of the content but also its velocity (how fast) and its coverage (how far it can go).

Let's add one more element: the fact that not all information produced is going to be relevant to resolving uncertainties. 

The difference between what's effective and what’s not is found in the Signal/Noise ratio. In other words, how many signals versus how much noise coexist in a particular chunk of information. 

Information with higher Signal/Noise ratio is distilled knowledge. This is particularly relevant because signals – not noise – are what we understand, digest and practically use to resolve uncertainties and advance our knowledge.

The caveat here is that it's hard to draw a line between signals and noise, as what seems like noise to some might not be for others.

Some media are inherently optimized for ease of interactions. Think of Twitter vs. Medium.com. It's easier to send a Tweet of 144 characters, than it is to write a Medium article.

It takes up to 10 seconds to send a Slack message, whereas it can take a few minutes to send a well-crafted email update. The easier the interaction, the greater the incentive to perform more.

Back to Slack. Slack at its core does one thing very well: it removes frictions. The corollary is that less friction means more users' interactions and more interactions mean a lower signal/noise ratio.

Slack is designed to generate and handle high conversations’ volume. Our brain is not. As people have a maximum cognitive capacity per day, the lack of friction is not necessarily a good thing when it comes with a considerably lower Signal/Noise ratio. Using Slack for everything and creating a culture of ASAP costs you the fulfillment of users’ daily cognitive capacity without delivering too much information.

This is not just a bad information diet, it can be harmful and have considerable collateral issues, from lower individual productivity and higher levels of stress, to a sense of being overwhelmed while feeling you're not up to date on the things that actually matter.

Resolution of information

When I previously described Slack's speed of information, I mentioned that Slack interactions are easy to kick off but hard to resolve. Here you will see exactly what I meant by "hard to resolve".

Some forms of media and communication inherently transmit information in high definition, where what’s being communicated is right in your face. Uncertainty is resolved immediately and thoroughly. There’s no guesswork or participation required on your part. This is what McLuhan calls “Hot” media.

Other forms of media and communication transmit information in lower definition. The participants have to do work to integrate several different components or senses, including gaps in information that must be filled in or genre conventions that must be followed, in order to complete the picture. A large part of the message being communicated is obscured or unsaid; it isn’t in the words, but in the gaps we must fill in. This is what McLuhan calls “Cool” media. 

Back to our example: interactions in Slack don't resolve instantly; there is guesswork to be done among all users involved. 

Have you ever witnessed hours of conversations about important matters in Slack that could be resolved by a 5-minute call? That's exactly the issue. Slack is particularly good at enabling low resolution communication. 

Every interaction in Slack requires guesswork on the participants in order to successfully resolve an uncertainty, whereas a medium like Email requires very little guesswork. It's a single-shot interaction, and because of that information is already presented in a way that can be easily digested and consumed.

Because high-resolution communication requires less interactions in order to achieve a resolution, it has a higher Signal/Noise ratio. By contrast, low-resolution communication tends to feature a considerably lower Signal/Noise ratio.




Slack: the good parts

I've been reading a lot of nonsense about Slack coming from both directions. In most cases, the arguments are either "Slack is killing productivity" or "You just don't know how to use it properly". The reality is that both of those statements could be accurate or not, depending on the context. 

Understanding the medium means understanding how to effectively leverage it. As we've seen here, Slack's firehose:

1. Privileges synchronous interactions

2. Privileges velocity over coverage of information

2. Privileges low resolution information

3. Features a low signal/noise ratio

With all of this in mind, let's draw a line between what’s a good usage of Slack and what isn’t.


Good usage of Slack

1. Leverage speed of information

Slack excels at distributing information (whether one-to-one or one-to-many) that needs to be spread really quickly. That's where you can expect Slack to get the job done.


2. Exploit low resolution interactions

Slack excels at low resolutions interactions. They've been very consistent in the development of the product, and this is true not only for interactions with other peers via messages, but also for interactions with integrations or third-party software. Slack provides a quick UI to accomplish simple tasks without going to the specific software application.

If a customer service agent wants to report a bug to the engineering team, they can create a new issue without leaving Slack. But of course if I'm an engineer and I need to sort, triage, and group reported bugs and do batch operations, then I’ll actually go to the bug tracker UI. But for everyone else who’s not an engineer and rarely needs to interact with that interface, their only interaction with the bug tracker is through Slack.

3. Maximise serendipity

In remote teams there's no physical water-cooler. The chit-chat is quite limited and brainstorming sessions are less spontaneous. Slack does a phenomenal job at replicating all those real life types of interaction. Other than real-time collaboration, Slack is great at generating serendipity – adding randomness and surprise to a remote workplace. The value of this is found in the exchange of interactions and is captured by the conversation. That's what Slack's reactions, GIFs, and emojis are there for: they help the development of a conversation.


Bad usage of Slack:

1. Looking for high resolution interactions

Signals in Slack tend to be diluted across pages of messages. Nobody wants to read a four hour-long conversation on Slack to get to know something. For high-resolution information the actual value isn't in the conversation per se, but in the distillation of that knowledge (ie. the ultimate decision).

Decisions, announcements, reports and company or team updates are all high-resolution content. At this point the difference should be clear, but if you’re in doubt, before hitting the "send" button, ask yourself: “Is this something that I'm expecting anyone to carefully read and understand?” If so, chances are that you're about to send high-resolution content. That doesn't belong in Slack, and you should choose a different and more streamlined way to distribute it.

When people read things in Slack, they have a predefined mindset. They're ready to digest a specific type of content and their mind is wired to expect and respond with a specific set of interactions.

The more things you use Slack for, the more guesswork is required of the receiver to classify the importance of what they're reading, know how to digest it, and figure out how they're expected to react with it. 

So, when using Slack:

- Avoid long, detailed messages (300+ characters)

- Avoid high-resolution content


2. Looking for high coverage

Use Slack when you need high speed of information, not when you need high coverage of information. When you write an important announcement you expect everyone to be aware of it. Slack’s firehose is designed for ephemeral content and privileges the “now” moment, the latest message, not the most important.


3. Viewing Slack as the place where you keep up-to-date

Slack should never be the place where users are supposed to keep themselves up-to-date. It should be clear that if you missed something in Slack, it’s totally okay. If that’s not clear in your organization, people will expect to have to read everything on Slack, and they'll be afraid of missing something. The consequences of this are a general sense of F.O.M.O. and a natural loss in productivity.


So how can this be prevented?

- Create incentives to sign off Slack for a minimum number of hours a day

- Incentivize people to leave channels (eg. deactivate public notifications when someone is leaving a channel)

- Don't create social pressure around interacting with what's been said in Slack (people shouldn't be accountable for what's been said in public channels).


4. Hope in self-regulation

Don't place hope in self-regulation. Create policies and make sure everyone in your organization follows them. You should cover everything, from how to write and communicate 1-to-1 and 1-to-many, to how to handle notifications and more.

- Take care of channel notifications

- Define individual notification policies

- Create an internal etiquette on how to use the tool



High-resolution vs. Low-resolution

We've seen what the difference is between high and low resolution communication. There's an important caveat that should be made clear: low resolution communication is easy and tends to happen very naturally. High-resolution communication is hard and needs enablement structures. This need is no doubt neglected.

Clarify in your organization what the difference is between low and high-resolution communication, and execute to limit the former and develop the latter.Think for a second of Amazon's internal policy on writing: memos vs slides.
Memos are high-resolution content. The work has to be done upfront by the writer. It carries a function of obligation, making sure there is nothing obscured and no gaps. When the job is done poorly it's clearly visible.

Slides on the other hand are a colder medium and tend to produce content at a lower resolution. Depending on the slides, there are gaps here and there that need to be filled in by the end users. 




It keeps the observer actively engaged with the presentation but at the cost of a less clear message. Good for brainstorming, less good for communicating vision or strategy.

Slack falls short over a certain headcount

Slack is the perfect solution when you're starting out. When you have less than 10 people in your organization, it enables you and the team to do practically everything in one place. Speed is what actually matters and coverage is almost taken for granted as the team is still pretty small.

When your company is starting to scale up, coverage is going to be significantly more important and if you aren’t intentional about how you distribute information, you're going to notice  all kinds of different of internal misalignments over time.

The firehose moulds the message, the company moulds the firehose

Whether for collaboration, real-time interactions, long conversation, decision making, or announcements, the medium you pick will mould the message.

As work is changing along many dimensional vectors, internal communication is going to be paramount for success, and modern organizations will have to be very deliberate not just in how they shape the tools they already have in their stack, but also by creating or adopting what’s missing.

Some companies have mastered it and filled the gap with internal solutions: Stripe built Stripe Home, Zapier built Zapier Async, Automatic built P2 and Google built Moma, to name just a few. We’re only scratching the surface here.

What's next

I decided to kick off this Blog with this short series of essays to set the framing and tone regarding the type of content that we're going to talk about, in order to inform your expectations.

I haven't talked much about Sametab in these wrap-ups but I'll be sure to do more in those that follow in order to explain the positioning of our product, as well as some of the thinking and strategies behind it.

Keeping your team aligned, motivated and aware of what’s happening in your business requires proper contextualization, which is something that real-time tools do not consistently provide.

One of the increasingly difficult challenges that we’re noticing is in how organizations manage to stay on the same page regarding the things that matter. We believe that important messages, updates, and announcements are what helps you and your team to cultivate thoughtfulness, minimize the amount of re-expression needed for shared ideas, and encourage everyone to communicate in ways that value the time and effort of others.

With this in mind we’ll keep adding features to allow you to plan well-thought out communication, meaningful prioritization and a focused business context. We believe that these are the things that ultimately help you to configure the environment your organization needs in order to stay aligned, organized and motivated. These are the things that define the heartbeat of your company.

At Sametab we're going to execute part of the things I laid down here, tackling what we believe are the most important problems around internal communication in the workplace. We're going to do this in a non-conventional way, our way: simple solutions for complex problems.

Our starting point is a lightweight chrome extension that allows you to distribute company announcements in the new browser tabs of everyone in your organization. If you haven't checked out Sametab yet, I strongly recommend signing up and giving it a whirl.


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