In a recent LinkedIn discussion, Ozcan Kabakcioglu shared his observation that many on-line discussion forums generate very few conversational exchanges. More often than not, contributors tend to share their own or others' thoughts in the form of previously published blog posts, magazine articles, published papers, and the like.
In reflecting on his well-observed comment, I suggested that we are perhaps wrong to refer to these on-line exchanges as "conversations" at all. And, given, the centrality of real-world conversation to my informal coalitions view of organizational dynamics, I thought that it was worth restating my reasoning here.
Conversation is an ongoing, real-time exchange
First, as Ralph Stacey, Patricia Shaw and Doug Griffin highlighted by their coining of the term "complex responsive process" to describe the nature of human interaction (here, for example), conversation is, first and foremost, a process of gesture and response. And, in true conversations, this gesturing and responding takes place between people in the moment of their interaction. That is to say, it is an ongoing, ‘real-time’ exchange. This means that what people end up saying – and how they end up saying it - is continually being modified, whether subtly or significantly, by their anticipation and noticing of participants’ responses to each other’s intentional and involuntary gesturing.
So, even though the linear, sender-receiver model of communication still governs much of what passes for formal communication practice in organizations, this is not how conversation works – or how people end up making sense of their world. Conversations are spontaneous and emergent, not planned and structured.
On-line exchanges are necessarily linear and 'staccato'
This linear, sender-receiver process happens of necessity, though, in on-line forums and other forms of on-line activity. Someone ‘encodes’ their thoughts in the form of a post or comment, which then has to be ‘decoded’ by readers, each through their own filters, before being responded to (or not) in the form of a further comment or new post.
To use an analogy, again drawing on Stacey’s insightful observations, a formal ‘communication’ (from a CEO, say) doesn’t in fact communicate anything at all. Instead, it extends an ‘offer’ for people to communicate amongst themselves, whilst providing data, information and/or opinion to facilitate this. (I’m sure that CEOs and their Internal Comms advisers wouldn’t see it this way!). The actual communication takes place via the conversations that people subsequently have with themselves (i.e. thinking) and with others, as they try to make sense of what’s going on and decide how to act.
Any postings on blogs and forums can perhaps best be thought of in a similar way. Their value to readers, if any, is not so much in the on-line postings as in the off-line conversations (including self-reflections) that these spawn.
An aid to reflective and reflexive practice?
An important aspect to bear in mind, of course, is the value that writers of posts, updates, and comments, etc gain themselves from their efforts. For example, if I used the number of comments on this blog as the measure of its value, I would probably have given up years ago. But besides (hopefully) offering some thoughts that others might find helpful and/or provocative, I also use blog posts and comments to check and refine my own thinking.
Perhaps that is what others are doing with their own postings. To paraphrase Karl Weick, how do I know what I think until I see what I write? And on this point, as I noted in an earlier post, Seth Godin believes that blogging is a worthwhile act even if nobody reads it!