I previously posted about things to consider when using Chat in the customer support center. At the end I mentioned that a determination of use would need to be made prior to implementation. I recently read a study (“So What Shall We Talk About” by Kris Markman, University of Memphis) that gives some hints about using chat in a team environment. (Thesis appeared in the January 2009 edition of the Journal of Business Communications.)
In a limited study it was found that the asynchronous nature of chat, coupled with the inability to see the other members of the meeting, could cause the opening and closing of the meeting to be problematic.
In a face to face meeting or even a teleconference, natural conversation takes place which is synchronous.
One person speaks at a time, has the attention of the others, and holds the floor until finished (well, maybe in your meetings). Often there is an agenda that highlights the opening and closing transitions of the meeting and there is the pre-meeting and post-meeting meetings, more informal; those hallway meetings whining about having to attend and then afterwards, dissecting it.
With or without an agenda, there is also often a heirarchy within the meeting members so that a tacit leader emerges to guide the meeting. If there is silence, everyone understands that it is nothing to worry about (unless the boss just threatened to fire everyone).
With chat, there is no way to tell who is getting ready to talk. Everyone could be typing a comment at any time. It can be difficult to get all members’ attention focussed on the work at hand (opening the meeting).
At the end, it can be just as difficult to close the meeting. Again, due to the lack of physical monitoring of the other members, other comments prolonging the meeting may be posted before a closure is achieved. And silence (lack of posts for a period of time) is generally contrued as a server lag, people preparing their next post, or doing something else altogether.
And that is just trying to open and close a meeting, never mind that middle stuff.
- Create an agenda and make sure all the members get it prior to the meeting. This is especially important when there is no clear heirarchy among members.
- Propose that someone act as coordinator or mediator to help keep meeting focus and to provide the “official” open and close of the meeting.
- Find a way to reduce either the “silences” or the worry over them. Perhaps posting line by line rather than at the end of the paragraph would help.
- Be patient. When people moved from meeting face to face to having a multiway phone conversation, like a teleconference, everyone had to work out when to talk, when to listen, and how to interpret the flow of the conversation. If a team meets using chat often enough it will likely develop a system to keep things on track.
- Be polite. Chat conversations can quickly become disjointed and confusing. Allow for that; people may need to go back over the previous postings to figure out where they are.
Chat can be a valuable tool for physically dispersed members of a team, but it should not be the only tool. Sometimes a good old fashioned phone call works best.
(Anybody remember rotary dials and party lines?)