29 August 2015

Oral versus written company cultures

I have noticed this thing a few years ago and it seemed like a very obvious concept to me. As usually when I invent something, I googled it, but unlike most times when I can read about others who already invented the same thing, I did not find any similar concept this time.
So here is the idea: in some companies (or organisations in general) writing is used more than in others to pass information around and to discuss things. This is obviously a gradual concept: some things will always be in written form, some always in oral form, but for many things in between, there is a choice of sending an email, creating a wiki entry, drafting a design doc, or talking to your coworker, or talking to the entire team of people sitting in front of their computers, or calling a meeting to discuss things and take decisions.
Let me just give one example out of many: a software team can come together in meeting to discuss requirements, specs (or acceptance criteria) for a new feature with one of them taking notes during the meeting and thereby complete the spec (or "user story"). Another possible way would be for one person to write a draft spec (no matter if that's a business analyst, product manager, lead developer, or just the person with the most interest and knowledge in that particular feature) and email it to others. (It's another question of culture not treated here, whether others can directly put their feedback into a shared document (wiki, issue tracker, whatever) or have to send it back to the responsible person.) In any case, the former way would be much more oral (keeping in mind that at a minimum meeting invitations are usually sent by email) while the latter is much more written (maybe with an oral part, when the document author reminds one or two coworkers to give their feedback while he crossing them in the company kitchen or hallway).
I can easily come up with a pro/con list of oral and written communication. Advantages for oral communication are:

  1. an asker of a question can get an immediate answer (which is very important when the question blocks their current task)
  2. people get a break from staring at their monitors
  3. being able to see another's facial expression transmits information that is often hard to put in words
  4. talking to just one person or a group of people all listening at once is faster than writing something. (this is even more true for people who aren't quick in formulating written speech; on the other hand, it's not true at all when the speaker makes notes for what they are going to say before saying it)
Advantages for written communication are:
  1. reading something is much quicker than listening to the same information spoken aloud. this is even more true when not all of it is relevant, because each reader can skip parts as they like, independent on all others.
  2. written information stays available for reading it again later. especially with modern computer's search capacity this can be very valuable.
  3. it's asynchronous: readers do not need to occupy the same time spot as the writer. each reader can read at their own preferred time. 
  4. both points 2 and 3 make written communication scale up much better: it is both hard to find a meeting time for more than six people and keeping all of them engaged all the time.
  5. writing something down helps clarify one's thoughts in a similar way that talking to someone does. but in writing the writer does not use another person's time and he or she can include their clarified thoughts into the communication that's sent out, possibly avoiding one loop of discussion.
  6. Writing allows to convey more complex information in more detail than oral speech can. In particular, for rational decision taking, writing has been shown to be extremely helpful, aiding in fighting many human heuristic biases that stand in the way of rationality.
Notice that text chat (such as via Skype, Jabber, SnapChat, etc.) is a form that combines advantages of both oral (it's instant) and written (it's silent and still somewhat asynchronous and can be looked up later) communication. Since it sits so neatly in between the two pure forms of oral and written, it can be used to differentiate company cultures on a single scale: a company has more written culture than an otherwise similar one if they use text chat in some places where the other uses talking. And the same goes for using email, a ticket system, or a wiki instead of text chat. (I would even argue that using a well structured wiki or task/project management system is more of a written culture than just using email all the time.

While I see that both sides (and all the shades in between) have their respective advantages, I find that most teams in the company I am currently working for, hang way to much towards the oral side than I would like. In particular, I am often disturbed by conversations in the team area that go over my head and distract from my current task. I find it hard to decide whether I should take of my sound-blockers to listen or (often unsuccessfully) try to ignore it. I hate spending time in meetings discussing things which one person could prepare beforehand, not just saving everybody time, but also often creating a result of higher quality. I hate it when a group has agreed on something, but later acts differently because the details and reasons had not been written down. I hate it when I miss an important discussion or information just because I was absent for a moment. And although I am not completely sure of it, I think that a written culture can encourage people to take more responsibility, for example, by drafting up suggestions to be approved instead of asking others and by just sitting down with a problem and a piece of paper (or text editor) before getting other's advice.

In other words: while I value the ease, quickness, and naturalness of simply talking to people, I would like my work environment to keep much more to the written way. After all, writing is part of what made our higher culture and our computing technology possible in the first place. Companies who neglect the writing, might not be able to tackle really complex issues and stay at the cutting edge of industry.

I want more of a written culture in my work life.


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