Behaving professionally, digitally speaking

New Thinking 15 August 2016 Moya Radley and Eleanor Eraković

Over the past 20 years, technology has increasingly become the information enabler in our business and social lives. Technology provides us with the tools to access information, to enhance it, process it and ultimately make sense of it.

It has also become one of the primary mechanisms in the information age for people to connect, communicate and share. The tools we use for digital work in the workplace rely on the interception, interpretation and transformation of information for making sense of our environment. The devices we rely on for access to our electronic environment bleep and blimp, seeking our attention and, subtly – or not so – inform us that we are required to interpret and transform the messages they’ve received.

Never before have we been so connected to each other and the world, and strangely, somehow at odds and at conflict with what we have created.

People have been developing communication mechanisms for centuries, from making visual sense of our environment and context on cave walls to sharing thoughts and ideas through verbal communication. As we learned to share our thoughts and ideas verbally, we also learned to decode the subtle messages behind verbal communication, which has allowed us to develop the skills to interpret the meaning from messages received and information shared within a specific context.

The advent of the written word and the development of technology to encode our thoughts and ideas into symbols for consumption and interpretation by others is a relatively recent development which has changed communication dramatically.

Driving global neo-enlightenment

Technology has allowed us to capture thoughts, ideas, information, images and concepts for others to gain an understanding of the wider information environment and drive global neo-enlightenment.  

Digital technology has exploded our ability to encode and communicate information about our context and environment. Instantaneously, information can be shared around the corner and around the world. We tweet photographs and short messages to followers, we ‘Facebook’, we use email to communicate instructions to our teams, we find professionals with similar interests and backgrounds through LinkedIn, we send WhatsApp messages to our family members on the other side of the globe, we use JIRA to communicate requirements to a development team on a project, and we use private messages to communicate our frustration to a colleague with an annoying customer.

While technology is neutral, it has dramatically changed the way in which we communicate. It has enabled the capture of information and, by consequence, has exponentially increased the amount of information we are translating and interpreting. Also, being a mechanism by which we communicate, it has allowed us to subtract some of the entrenched social norms and behaviours that we expect of others in any given context. It gives us the permission to be a little less than professional in our conduct, allows us the supposed freedom to gossip via text message about the comment made by a colleague in a meeting – perhaps a level of anonymity and a perceived increased separation from responsibility for our actions?

We blame technology for our bad behaviour. However, technology is neutral and we are not. Technology is the vehicle in which we now communicate using a variety of mediums. It is an imperative in this pervasive digital world that we remain responsible for our behaviour, how we communicate, the information we share and the environment we create in online forums and various mediums.

An illusion of privacy

Communication through a neutral mechanism or device creates the illusion of privacy which somehow absolves bad behaviour and renders it as impartial as the device itself. It is too easy to bemoan a customer using a private message within a CRM system or to berate a shared colleague on a project through JIRA.

We remain responsible for posting these messages (and all too often we forget this) and for the regrettable consequences of messages posted in haste or anger. It is also important to remember that the information you impart to a global community or note against a client account is publicly available. Domestic and international laws can now break any level of security if there is a violation to another or the public can request file notes and messages relating to their own account.

Our communication filters and professional conduct need to be in place more so than ever as we send out or capture messages to a digital audience – especially in business. But what does ‘professional behaviour’ mean in a digital sense?

Think about these things:

  • If you’re in a position where you need to communicate about a customer using a digital tool, ask yourself whether you would be prepared to communicate your message to the customer in person. If not, is there anything about your communication that you need to change? What would the consequences be if the customer obtained a copy of your communication?
  • If you are communicating with a colleague or your boss, read through your message and ask yourself whether there would be anything that could be misconstrued. If so, do you need to simplify your message to ensure that your meaning is understood? Is there anything in your message that might better be conveyed in person? If you are posting information on a professional site or blogging for your organisation, always be mindful of how your organisation chooses to be perceived. Remember that you cannot always retract what you have posted or un-publish a document

Verbal and non-verbal cues

One amazing complexity – that cannot be replicated currently with Artificial Intelligence – is that we are human and our communication has evolved to such a state that we pick up verbal and non-verbal cues in communication.

This ability to analyse images or interpret subtleties provides added meaning and depth to messages that cannot easily be transmitted in the written form or digitally. Written communication presents less opportunity for the flow of conversation, for asking questions to delve into issues and more opportunity to misconstrue meaning and intent or reading body language. We are still evolving digitally, with the prospect of ‘digital’ meaning more connectivity and yet greater disconnect.

What do you need to do to ensure that you remain professional and human in the technology-enabled digital business world?