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Distributed Teams and Conversational Fragmentation - LiquidPlanner

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Distributed Teams and Conversational Fragmentation

SM Hammer

Several months ago I was thinking about what it was going to take to better integrate email into the LiquidPlanner feature set. Coincident with this pondering I became vexed by Let me explain…

SM SurfI am an avid Twitter user. I love my Twitter friends and it keeps me feeling connected to them even when I can’t “be there” in person. Twitter allows me to be vicariously present when my body must be elsewhere. But then one of my favorite tweeps went over to another micro-blogging service, I can feel the conversations fragmenting. Now I have to be on multiple services when really I just want to “follow” Mar***Mar***’s updates.  Frustrating.

Now think about this when you have a distributed team (e.g. design in Chicago, business office in Seattle, development in Bangalore) and the conversations between them are in different tools. This prevents focus as each person looking to follow what’s going on is forced to give continuous partial attention to each tool and each fragment stream of a dialog.

For example, a conversation between the people in the design office (Chicago) leads to one of them authoring a page on the internal wiki. Twelve hours later the development team in Bangalore sees the new page and starts an email discussion amongst themselves. But because of the geographical separation they also tend to talk amongst themselves in email. So you end up with conversations fragmented through 2 or more email threads, a wiki, maybe some documents on a share somewhere…

By the way, if you think that the Bangalore folks would certainly include the Chicago folks in their discussion then you need to read Moenaert et al on Communication flows in international product innovation teams. This paper (published in 2000) showed that when multiple sites are involved, geographical distance still plays a role in determining frequency of communication. The frequency of communication between a central location and a foreign subsidiary declines exponentially (not linearly) with distance; nearest units communicated as much as ten times more than distant units. (Reference 1)

From a Read Write Web article asking Is Email in Danger:

Since email was the first killer app for the web, it’s used for everything. We’re now observing a fragmentation cycle where we’re discovering better ways of passing around information and getting things done.


Social networks incorporate direct messaging and chats, making it easy for people to talk directly, bypassing email. These communications are easier than email; they’re integrated into the flow and more accessible. To be fair, they’re aimed for brief messages.

The increasing speed of our lives and global connectivity reduces the need for lengthy emails. If we’re in touch more often, then we reveal less every time we talk. Shorter, more frequent exchanges are replacing the lengthier communication of the past.

At this point it should be clear that the need for special kind of “integration” of these data sources is required. This integration goes beyond thinking about how we get the data into one place. The integration I’m talking about requires thinking about the interaction of getting the information to the right people at the right timeThat question is subjective and situational. Because I’m talking about information flow between people, I think the solution will take the form of features that mediate the social interactions between participants.

It is the interactions rather than the data itself that is important and should be the focus.  For example, it is wrong to think that you could just pipe your Twitter feed, your RSS feeds, and your email all into your email reader. You email reader is the wrong context for a micro-blogging interaction.

The tool that you have at your fingertips tends to be the first tool you want to try. Using that tool colors your perception of the situation and participants in the communication. If we did the “pipe to email” thing, all interaction with each of those sources would be influenced by the email context. By going after that kind of “solution”, rather than gathering the power of all those tools, we would be truncating the power of those tools.

We should be looking to solve the problem of conversational fragmentation by providing better searching and filtering on top of the existing mediums and giving the user a way to effortlessly cross-link, reference, and search all those different mediums.


  1. Rudy K. Moenaert, Filip Caeldries, Annouk Lievens, and Elke Wauters. Communication flows in international product innovation teams. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 17(5):360–377, 2000.

Author’s Note: Yes, I know the plural of medium is media. But the term “media” is so freighted with meaning and preconception and… gah! Why do people have to go and ruin perfectly good words?



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