Thursday, September 18, 2008


Foot-Dragging and Network Externalities

My college, like most, is struggling with ways to communicate.

In this context, I don't mean that in the substantive sense, though that's certainly there. I mean it in the procedural sense. How do you inform every potential stakeholder of, say, an event happening on campus in two days, or a grant application deadline in two months?

In olden times, back when 'full-time faculty' would have been considered a redundancy, you could just put pieces of paper in mailboxes. It wasn't the fastest method, but everybody had a mailbox, and nearly everybody was around a lot, so you could be reasonably sure that almost everybody at least had a chance to read the letter. (Yes, people were often quick to dispose of papers unread, but that's another issue.)

Some people still insist on that method, and it's not without certain virtues in very small, close-knit settings. But it doesn't work well for units larger than a single department, and it doesn't work at all with workforces that are substantially part-time. And with the imminent change in postal regs – starting November 1, any pre-sorted first class mail that gets returned to sender for an incorrect address will carry a fifty-cent penalty per piece for the sender – snail mail is too financially risky.

Email was supposed to save us, as was the campus website. They both have real virtues – they're quick, they save on paper and printing costs, and they're accessible from off-campus. In some ways, they're almost too quick and easy -- I sometimes wonder if attaching at least some cost to them might cut down on the amount of meaningless cc'ed emails I have to slog through every single day. But there's a substantial portion of the population that simply refuses to read emails or websites, and another substantial portion that reads them too sporadically to rely on them.

The dilemma here is that the tools only work when everyone uses them. I think the scholarly term for it is 'network externalities.' The idea of 'network externalities' is that the value of a communication tool (for example) increases for each person as more people use it. Phones weren't terribly useful when only Bell and Watson had them; as phones became more common, they became more useful, since there were more people to call. Email is similar. Back in the day, I can remember when email access was strange and exotic, and very few people had it. The only people I could email were other students in computer classes, so I didn't rely on it for anything. Now it's far more useful precisely because so many more people have it.

The problem with anything that relies on network externalities is that stubborn non-adopters can drag down its value for everyone else. Posting a message on the campus website becomes ineffective by itself, since some people don't look at the website (or don't look very often), so we have to rely on other media, too. I've actually seen emails asking people to look at a message on the website. Worse, some folks insist on paper backups as well, thereby defeating any cost or time savings. A tool that could have saved us all a lot of trouble winds up causing new problems, specifically because some people simply refuse to use it.

Wise and worldly readers, I'm hoping to steal some good ideas here. Have you seen effective ways to coax the technophobes into at least the 1990's? They're throwing sand in the gears for the rest of us, whether they're aware of it or not, and I'd love to be able to re-route resources from self-inflicted problems to real ones.

This is a constant problem for us. We've actually asked faculty how they want us to communicate with them and they kind of shrug. And we ask if we send email when a server is going to be down, is that sufficient? And they say they won't read it. And then they'll yell when the server is down. The email then becomes simply a CYA thing. So, we also started a blog, which gets fed to different parts of the web site and gets linked to in email regularly. That seems to work fairly well. What I think has to happen is for the non-adopters to feel left out because they're not reading email or the blog. Those that are non-adopters and don't care, you'll never reach. Often they're one and the same.
Someone, I forget who, wrote that scientific revolutions proceed one dead scientist at a time. This may be a similar case.

At my institution, we've pretty much decided, and announced, and followed through on, using email and the website. (Some things, of course, have to be done on paper, still.) The announcement said, essentially, "This is how we're going to do this, and you are responsible for reading what we send you." And that has forced people to come around, a lot of them somewhat grudgingly (hell, screaming and kicking).

Most of our adjuncts are perfectly happy with this (as a group, they've adapted more quickly), because they are now less likely to miss things. Since we're a multi-campus institution, it speeds communications that have to go to multiple campuses (which is another reason things have been more readily accepted...the inter-campus mail system was, well, s....l....o....w, and email is generally fast).

So I'd say bite the bullet, tell people they're responsible, and stick to it.
At one institution, I worked with a man who communicated with the administrative assistant by fax when he was out of the office. Fax! And this was 2006. Seriously, he would send a dozen faxes in a day. He would also leave handwritten notes for his colleagues. It was like 19th century version of email. He'd seal the notes up in envelopes secured with tape, as though they were state secrets, and slip them under the target colleague's door. This drove his colleagues absolutely insane, not the least because his excessively-sealed envelopes were so difficult to open. Another faculty member in the same department was still handwriting manuscripts and hiring students to type them for him.

But both of these dinosaurs did use email, too. They hated it, they complained about it, they kept it as infrequent as they could. But they knew email was the primary delivery system for important messages, and they went along with it. I think Laura is right - once they really feel that they're going to be left out if they're not checking their email, they will do it. If paper backups exist for this stuff, they're not going to feel the urgency to get on board with email.
I too think you just have to insist. I chaired a committee once, back in the 90s when email was new. I sent out meeting notices and agendas and minutes on email, and it seemed to be working until one committee member asked me why we hadn't met and was informed that he had, indeed, missed three meetings. "I didn't get notices." "They were in your email." "Oh! I don't use email. Would you print them out and send them to me?" And my only possible answer was "No. The reason I'm using email is precisely so I don't have to spend time printing out notices, finding an interoffice envelope, looking up your campus address, addressing the envelope and walking it over to the maildrop. One button push and I'm done. So, start reading your email."

Seriously. I work in a place that has "Technology" in its name. Welcome to the information age.
DD: This is less in the nature of a comprehensive psychological or technological strategy; more anecdotal evidence suggesting a way of inciting stakeholders' positive engagement:

About a week ago, in the week of the Gustav/Hannah/Ike weather, we had a Thursday of very heavy rains (nothing like our brothers and sisters in Houston/Galveston, thank goodness). By around 11:30pm, the water was two feet deep in some of the major thoroughfares and was still sheeting down. After local ISD's decided to close school on Friday, our uni's administrators decided to do likewise.

In order to notify faculty, staff and students, they decided for the first time to employ the integrated cell/land line/text message/email technology recently put in place for emergency notification (I think of this as the "live shooter" technology). By 12:30am, both self and (colleague) spouse had received automated cell call, SMS text message, landline call, and email. And by 12:35am Facebook had erupted with thousands of kids posting "Yay! no school tomorrow!" messages. It was a remarkably impressive demonstration of successful deployment of new technology...and it was carrying a "Congratulations! You've got tomorrow off!" positive message.

It suggests to me that a really good way to invoke investment by stakeholders is to make sure that at least some of the new communications usages, at least initially, give even the recalcitrant parties some kind of goodies. In our case here, it seems to have produced swift enhancement of positive responses.
All of our computers are set to open Internet Explorer to our intranet website when the user logs on. It is part of the log-on script and there is no way around it. This is no guarantee that the user will actually look at the intranet but the majority of people at least glance at the page. This won't get information to people in the middle of the day so it won't work for more urgent announcements and it isn't good for issues targeted at specific groups. But it works for overall campus-wide announcements. Of course, it also depends on people at least logging off at the end of each day, even if they aren't shutting down.
Put out calls for proposals (with money attached) only over email. Then when people complain they didn't know, you get to say "Read your email."
DH in the early '00 worked for a very small SLAC. They used to send announcements both over email and a daily phone bulletin (which also included things like the lunch menu!). Those silly messages on his phone drove DH nuts - and probably contributed to him missing a message or two in his attempt to avoid dealing with the bulletin. But, looking back, it probably dealt with the non-adopters reasonably well.
Dean Dad is approaching this from the standpoint of faculty (mostly, I think), but I see this behavior with STUDENTS, who are hardly technophobes or luddites.

Most of them don't bother to read information from "The College" sent by email (unless they know and trust the source, which is usually an individual such as a professor). They all have their own gmail/hotmail/yahoo account, and we chase them all over Virtual Creation attempting to give them information, deadlines, etc.

I think this is because a student thinks it's not directed specifically to him/her, so no need to pay attention to it. They also get far too much stuff from every college office, department, student group, activity listserv, etc., so it all becomes NOISE to them. Hitting *delete* is the 21st century equivalent of standing in front of your student mailbox, shoveling the accumlated papers into the recycling bin.

There's sometimes an overlap or digital communication convergence where you can reach students, but that's usually very transient before the students look up and go "holy crap, the administration is on facebook!" and then they go to twitter or something else.

And yet, when you ask them how they would like to be contacted, most of them will say "email" is the preferred way. Because it's easy, but it still doesn't guarantee they'll read it, much less act on it.

Whew, got that off my chest!
Does everyone involved have easy access to a computer? I worked at a school where 24 staff shared one rather old computer (and two phones) — most people never got in the habit of checking email, because we were too busy to queue for the computer.

Is the email channel free from spam? Even ignoring offers to increase one's unmentionables, does the administration send only important messages, or do people get CCed on narly everything? And can they simply read the email, or do they have to download a Word document that tells them to go to a website and navigate to the page with the message?

If you are transferring the cost of sending a paper message to the person who gets it, you can't expect them to be happy spending more of their time and/or money unless you give them something in exchange…
I think that the problem of faculty/staff not being willing to use email is rapidly receding. Here in the more-techie Pacific Northwest, it is a rare individual who refuses to read/write email. At our CC, they really don't have a choice.

The bigger problem seems to be the overload of extraneous or peripheral emails. I'll bet you all have the similar problem of an innocuous email that gets sent to, 'ALL', which then spawns a time-sapping thread of useless messages from folks who just had to respond back to 'All'. We send out the cafeteria menu each week, which inevitably triggers messages about lack of variety, questionable nutrition, lack of sustainability, etc.
Make reading email a job requirement.

Too many trivial messages? Hit the delete key.

Let the Luddites wither on the vine.

I don't work in higher ed, but back when I was in college the university policy was that all official communication would come out over email. And not reading your email did not excuse you from anything if you missed class because the room changed/missed an assignment/whatever.

I agree with the people who have said that you need to make it the "official" form of communication, and then just let whatever happens happen with the non-users. Consequences for your actions and all that.
Might I suggest that technologies be chosen based on the way we feel the messages should be received. Are we trying to "push" information out to people, or are we trying to get them to change their behavior to "pull" information in?

If we only want them to "pull" this generally sends a signal that it isn't important to everyone. A website, or a blog, is passive. It's there if you want to read it, but you (the reader) must make take an active role in seeking out the information. This type of behavior is self-motivated, and usually denotes a high degree of personal interest, and are used on the receivers time-table, not the senders.

The email, and most recently, text message and voice mail approaches, are more "push" oriented. These types of technologies are useful certainly when you don't have time to wait for the receiver to "find you." You actively find them (or their cell phone or email box.) In addition, push technologies are quite useful when you want to push something under the nose of another--especially something that they might not otherwise even think to seek for themselves.

"Didn't you read about that short-notice grant opportunity last week? It was right up your alley..."

"Um. No. How did you know about it?"

"Oh, it was on the website. You just had to click on esoteric link A, then, in the third paragraph, when it mentioned 'Are you interested in grants?' you clicked there, and then..."

(I think you get the picture.)

Bottom line: Are you trying to push information? Then select push technologies (and by all means DON'T rely on blogs or websites for that!) If it is something that is time-insensitive, or just general information, by all means, stick it out there and hope someone visits.
I think making email the standard and then reminding everyone that it's the standard is the best way. It's kind of like what we do with students these days: put it all on Blackboard and when they ask, tell them on it's on Blackboard. If they claim they didn't know, well, they were warned.

This obviously doesn't work in an emergency (which is why those new text message alert systems seem like a good idea), but it would help with the seminar and grant notices and the like.

If you're worried about flooding them with emails, you could try what my old uni does - they publish a daily email and RSS "newsletter" with the latest notices for students and faculty. They get the headlines/summaries in the email, and can click on a link to the full story for more information (including forms if it's an application for something). Check it out:
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