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Summary:

As we rely more heavily on a plethora of communications services, the once-practical paper trail is under threat. It’s getting harder for many of us to keep track of conversations. How can teams improve communication trackability, and make the most of the tools they have available?

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As we rely more heavily on a plethora of basic communications services, the once-practical paper trail is under threat It’s getting harder for many of us to keep track of conversations, find old messages, and know who on our teams knows what about which projects.

The challenge was tough enough when we had to contend with email and SMS, but add multiple flavors of instant messaging and social networks, and a quick communique can take ages to find.

Did that one-line request from your colleague arrive as an SMS, a Twitter DM, a quickly-jotted IM, or an email “Sent from my iPhone”? Did it relate to the DM you just received, or the all-points email you received an hour ago? How long will it take you to work that out?

That we now have messaging capability at our fingertips 24/7 might make communication easier, but it also means it’s more casual. SMS-style emails are now de rigueur. While shorter notes may seem efficient, in my experience, they’re more likely to be sent hastily and without due consideration about who they’re going to and the tone they take.

Again, this can make following the paper trail of communications for a project a nightmare — moreso if the personal affront of a colleague accidentally left off the CC: list comes into the equation.

How can teams improve communication flow and trackability, and make the most of the tools they have available?

1. Use the Tool for the Job

If you want to be able to keep track of the communications you have about a particular project or aspect of it, use the tool for the job. You could SMS an instruction to your colleague, for example, but since those messages will only be searchable by you, perhaps it might be better to send a quick email or reply directly to the relevant discussion on the team’s Yammer account.

Also, try to think ahead about the practicality of your chosen means of communication over the future of the conversation. If you can’t stick to the originally chosen means of communication over the entire course of the conversation and are forced to switch, you’ll find it difficult to keep track of the conversation over time, or locate certain messages within it if you need to.

2. Speak Only to Those You Need to Speak To

If you need to communicate something that you want to keep private, you won’t use Yammer, for example. If you need those you communicate with to know who else is receiving the message, you’ll avoid the BCC: option.

If you want a certain group of team members to receive all the communications on a certain topic (for example, relating to a certain project) set them up as a separate group in your contacts list for the service you choose. That way, you’ll never risk accidentally leaving someone off the list.

3. Take the Time It Requires

Take care with that reply to a work question you quickly tapped from a taxi, meeting or movie. If the messages you communicate are in any way ambiguous, confusion will most likely result. Your desire for efficiency may actually cause major breakdowns in workflow and time-wasting as your team, once they realize the error, tries to play catch-up to get things back on track.

Think about what you need to say, but also whether you need to include any backstory. If you’re replying to an email thread and expanding it to include more team members, consider whether or not you need to attach all the previous messages. Instead of just referring to a previous email in an IM because it’s quick and easy, spend a moment finding the email so you can attach it, or copy and paste the relevant parts, for your contacts to see.

4. Follow Up

Make a point to speak to your contacts soon after you send the communication, to make sure they understood your message and have all the information they need. Don’t overlook the casual “sure that sounds good” messages, either — often they’re the ones that cause the problems, particularly if the person who sent the message to you wasn’t 100 percent clear about their plans.

Do you find it difficult to keep track of conversations that take place across media? What tips can you share to help us manage the challenge more effectively?

Image courtesy ColinBroug.

  1. Yammer’s Direct messaging feature is great for going “private” and still avodiing CC:hell and reply-all frustration. What I like most about it is the ability to add people to the thread and the entire message stream is there for review.

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  2. Maybe the answer to the first paragraph is to break old habits and simply find a better solution. Cohuman is designed to address just this problem. “know who on our teams knows what about which projects.” but even more importantly who’s responsible for what and what order are they tackling them in.

    I guess I’m a little dismayed that you haven’t offered a few new tech insights…

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