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.

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