The arrival of technology has forever changed the way we interact in the business environment. Emails, instant messages, and texts are now the go-to tool for file sharing, collaboration, project management, project coordination, and official business communications. However, due to the accepted practice of commingling business with personal, the formality once observed for business communications has given way to a more casual attitude. This is represented in the tone of the communication, as well as in its content. Matters that one (in the not-so-distant past) would never consider putting in writing are being communicated through emails, instant messages, and texts as those communication mediums are perceived in the same vein as “verbal.” It is this mindset that keeps generating the fodder for headlines costing companies not only money, but their reputations.
The tried-and-true practice of implementing policies and procedures for use of emails and other technologies are failing to appropriately address this conundrum – the question is why? It appears that the answer lies in distinguishing between a cultural (a way of life) versus a behavioral issue. Behavior can be modified, but cultural norms are a different beast. Consider this: In our society technology is ubiquitous and the art of conversation is fading rapidly. The way people interact is through technology and this will not change simply because the person is now using the technology in a business, rather than a personal environment.
Accordingly, while employees may acknowledge and understand policies and procedures related to acceptable communications, when push comes to shove, they will revert back to what is natural for them. As a result, communications that were never meant to be memorialized (much less see the light of day) are slipping through the cracks. So what is the answer? While it would be great to point to a technological solution, predictive analytics is still evolving and presently incapable of tackling the nuances of acceptable versus unacceptable behavior in written communications – at least to a degree of reliance. Of course, companies can monitor, audit, and set examples (i.e., imposition of the proverbial “stick”) to address the issue. But frankly, due to the sheer volume of communications generated and received, monitoring each and every one is unrealistic. This makes the simplicity of the Capstone approach attractive and draws attention to its utility.
The Capstone approach was devised by the federal government to manage its emails. The goal is to reduce burden of email management by automating capture and management of emails based on roles. In other words, those positions with the federal government more likely to generate or receive official communications are identified and their emails preserved “permanently.” Others are deleted automatically after an agreed-upon set of time.
Certainly, setting rules based on roles within companies would assist in reducing exposure and risk (by limiting the pool for governance). But it is important to keep in mind that the headline-grabbing examples are not touting the discovery of emails from the rank-and-file employee, but rather, those in leadership positions whose emails under the Capstone approach (applied to a private corporation) would likely be preserved. Furthermore, while this approach may reduce the pool of candidates for preservation of emails, it does not address the culture issue identified.
In the end, the point of this post is not to present a solution, but to offer a different perspective in approaching the problem. That is, if solely focused on modifying behavior it leaves out a critical aspect of the problem – that of culture and how it influences actions in the workplace. As headlines continue to draw attention to this issue, it will be interesting to see how corporations respond – will there be a creation of a counter culture in the workplace that more clearly delineates between business and personal, a throwback to the “water cooler” with an emphasis on more person-to-person interactions, or the advent of new technology that will only shift the problem from this to another form. Only time will tell.