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Rethinking What Works Better When For the Twenty-First Century

By on October 6, 20113 Comments

Yes or no...

Ten years ago, I first wrote what I now refer to as “What Works Better When” a look at the practical and social implications of when one should use the telephone, instant messaging and, more recently, such tools as text messaging and social software.

When I first wrote this, we had three choices, namely the telephone, instant messaging, and in person contact.

I didn’t anticipate how many choices there would be ten years later – and the number of choices brings in a new question, the personal preference of the recipient.

Without rehashing the entire piece, which I updated in my new book, Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, I’ve observed some trends in how people use these various tools that make this revisit necessary.

I got to this point when several of my phone calls were criticized for, well, being phone calls.  “It’s better to text me” I was chided by a friend after calling to say I wanted to grab a coffee with him while I was in his neighborhood.  “I don’t always look to see who’s calling but I almost always look at my new text messages” he helpfully explained.

The fact is that I do text, but I never associated immediacy with texting.  That was perhaps one of the underlying tenets of What Works Better When in fact, namely that when an immediate response is required, phone calls and instant messages are the obvious choices.

Therein lies the rub.  The mail-order business used to say “One person’s junk mail is another person’s L.L. Bean catalog” and the same holds true today for the variety of tools we have for reaching people.

The problem is that it’s up to the sender (in this case, me) to keep up with all of these individual preferences.

Do I text Mark before calling?

Do I simply leave Paula a voicemail, knowing she always calls back quickly?

Do I reach out to Hans-Peter via Facebook to set up a time to chat?

Do I simply just dial someone if I need to get them?

If I do e-mail someone before calling, which e-mail do I use (while I still advocate the use of one e-mail address and inbox, the majority of knowledge workers seem to have several and they are not tied together)?

One physician I go to likes to communicate with patients via text message – and she’s very good about it.  But my phone’s battery unexpectedly ran out and I didn’t see a text that my appointment had moved.  I showed up an hour early as a result but clearly it wasn’t the end of the world.

I’ve texted people when I was running late (and in some cases couldn’t actually call) and my assumption that they actually read the texts resulted in a certain amount of confusion about whether I was showing up at all.  Furthermore, had I called, assuming the person answered, I would have known with certainty that the person got the message.  Not so with texting, you simply have to trust that the message was received and read.

I’ve called in similar circumstances, and left voicemail, only to find out that the other party never was notified (or so he claims) of the voicemail.

In the end, I think technology may have obsoleted my What Works Better When soliloquy.  In today’s increasingly frantic communications environment, it all comes down to personal preference – and that means you only have to keep track of the personal preferences of 300 or so of your closest friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.


  • [...] messaging and face-to-face discussions.  Aside from the fact that managers there should read my “What Works Better When?” treatise, I have to wonder how it was determined that “most” of the e-mail exchanges were [...]

  • [...] messaging and face-to-face discussions.  Aside from the fact that managers there should read my “What Works Better When?” treatise, I have to wonder how it was determined that “most” of the e-mail exchanges were [...]

  • [...] Writing in Fast Company, Aaron Shapiro, CEO of Huge, a digital marketing company, has made some resolutions of his own.  They are to turn off IM, which he sees as an invitation to be interrupted; check e-mail only a few times a day; and to schedule time for social media.  We agree with Mr. Shapiro that IM, e-mail, and social media can be the source of significant interruptions, and it is incumbent on the individual to set limits for use and to always take the time to select the appropriate communications channel for the task at hand.  Turning IM off completely may be a bit on the extreme side though, as the tool can actually help avoid other interruptions, such as e-mail and phone calls.  Our current guidelines for selecting the best tool are laid out in our recently updated What Works Better When article. [...]

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