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From Distraction to Distinction

Tim Ringo, Partner at Maxxim Consulting, examines the important lessons that organizations can learn from the distractions of modern communication technologies and how these technologies can be a bonus if controlled properly.

From Distraction to Distinction by Tim Ringo, Partner at Maxxim Consulting

One of the important lessons organizations can learn from the many distractions of modern communication technologies is about why they are distracting. Educator James Herndon, author of How to Survive in Your Native Land, once wrote about a similar problem he faced when teaching in parts of rural America: Dogs would wander into his classroom. Why, Herndon asked, couldn’t the kids just let the dog be instead of chasing after it and disrupting class?

The answer was that the dog was interesting and the classroom lecture on ancient Egypt was not. The same thing happens today with conference calls, meetings and presentations. Too many meetings get planned for inadequate reasons — status calls that aren’t really necessary or relevant for all the people on the line, for example. Because of this, people will naturally want to catch up on e-mails or send instant messages to friends and colleagues instead of listening intently to irrelevant discussions.

In order to address and balance the issue of keeping employees’ attention, given the emerging technologies that potentially add to the distractions, managers must create a focus and discipline on relevance — relevance of topic and of audience. This can be accomplished by giving regular, careful thought to the topics to be covered in a weekly or monthly conference call and then assessing who should be in the audience.

The second trick is a new twist using innovative technologies: Managers should try holding virtual meetings using 3-D Internet tools, such as Second Life. It’s far more engaging for employees, and it also serves as a check on distractions. If an employee stops engaging with the environment of the meeting, he or she will suffer the rather embarrassing consequence when his or her avatar falls asleep in front of the other participants. Or, if the individual starts typing away on other matters, colleagues will hear that going on within the virtual world. This technology is very much like being in a real meeting and requires the same focus and etiquette.

In day-to-day work life, social media and instant messaging can be a bonus to both productivity and efficiency if it can be controlled properly so as not to overwhelm employees. One of Maxxim Consulting’s assistants did a project last year to assess the impact of instant messaging on other forms of communication such as e-mail. The company found that the number of e-mails steadily declined as people began to rely more on instant messaging. It also found that the short form of an instant message, text message or tweet forces people to be clear and succinct — something that doesn’t always happen with e-mail. With instant messaging, managers don’t have to deal with the logjams that frequently occur with long e-mail queues. They can make faster decisions based on more focused, shorter bursts of information.

Ultimately, reaping the benefits of social media depends on discipline. It takes discipline, for example, to remember to set a status on an instant messaging application — busy, away, in a meeting and so forth. But then, it also takes discipline to respect that status and not try to blow through someone’s busy sign for selfish reasons. Those in leadership positions must set expectations and ground rules and then model the behaviors they want to see in others. Once these behaviors become second natureFree Web Content, the upsides of technology can be very significant.

Tim Ringo is a partner in London-based firm Maxxim Consulting and co-author of the forthcoming bookCalculating Success.

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This piece was originally published in Chief Learning Officer magazine in March 2011

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Tim Ringo is a partner at Leading London based consultancy, Maxxim Consulting. Tim has over twenty years experience in helping clients create organizational change and workforce performance through the implementation of effective talent management strategy, processes and technology. Tim is former Vice President and Global Leader of IBM’s Human Capital Management consulting practice. Prior to working with IBM, Tim spent 16 years at Accenture where he was Executive Partner in Accenture’s Human Performance Service Line.  

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