In celebration of the conservation optimism conference next April, I decided to write a blog about one of the most innovative pieces of technology that could revolutionise the conservation sector entirely, by making us all better at communicating with one another.
All the work that we do as conservationists is underpinned by a need for good communication. Whether verbally or through writing, communicating through language is one of the defining characteristics of our species. In our day to day working lives, good communication is key to whether or not organisations succeed at delivering the impacts they are working towards, or fail.
- Can we communicate our ideas to our colleagues effectively?
- Do our line managers and leaders have the ability to communicate their goals and visions clearly?
- Can we handle conflict without escalating sensitive situations?
- Can we persuade others to join our cause?
Addicted to email
Within most organisations today, the tools we use on a day-to- day basis are increasingly hampering our ability to communicate effectively with one another. Email has taken over our daily working lives, and made face-to- face communication mostly obsolete. How many of us are guilty of emailing a colleague sitting opposite of us in our offices?
According to the Radicati Group, office workers send or receive an average of 122 emails from the average company email account per day. On a typical 9-5 working day, that’s like receiving a new piece of communication every 4 minutes. In the digital world that we live in, we are expected to respond to emails at all times. Not only this, but many of us actively check our email despite having plenty of work to do in what psychologists call the pursuit of ‘random rewards’. What this means is that whilst most of the email we receive tends to be work related or bothersome, every now and then we receive something meaningful, like a message from a friend, news of a significant milestone, or videos of goats playing with watermelons.
Despite the fact that we appear to be constantly connected to email, our communications still also remain rather slow. Working effectively in highly collaborative teams, often across larges geographical areas requires us to communicate with a tool where we can respond to changes rapidly as they occur. This is not only tricky when you use poor communication tools, but also tricky when working within inter-generational teams, where the expectations of appropriate communication times differ vastly between younger and older team members.
So how can we solve the problems of distraction and slow paced response times created by email? The last decade has seen an explosion of online communication tools which have helped us all become better communicators, from Facebook groups, WhatsApp, and online applications like Basecamp, to name but a few. Whilst these applications have most certainly helped increase our capacity to communicate with colleagues, particularly when working overseas, email has persisted as the tool of choice within most organisations, and this needs to change.
To the slack and beyond
Heralded as the killer of email, Slack has propelled itself to the top of the ranks as one of the most successful start-ups in the last two years. Founded by Stewart Butterfield, an ex-Cambridge grad working out of San Francisco, Slack is a messaging office application that has already been adopted by some of the biggest organisations on the planet; NASA, Airbnb, and Walmart all use it. With a valuation estimated at 2.8 billion (not bad for 2 years in operation), Slack has managed to persuade 1.7million people to become daily users. Similar to interfaces such as Facebook and Twitter, Slack allows companies and employees to communicate with one another in real time, and incorporates all communication into one easily searchable archive – helping everyone skip the constant need to plow through their inboxes for long lost messages.
The celebrated opening of the David Attenborough Building was the beginning of a new era in conservation, one where collaboration is placed at the very centre of all conservation practice. In light of this important shift, what has been missing is a tool that improves internal organisational communication.
Faster and casual communication, means better conservation.
One of the most exciting features about slack is that communication can be inclusive and theme based. I took a screen short of the slack we use at the Judge Business School as an example.
Users can create channels according to their line of work or interests, and anyone can receive communication from those channels by joining. Alternatively, you can also create private groups or project-based channels much in the same way that is done on YouTube. The potential for improved communication is huge.
Let’s take a moment to imagine what it would be like if everyone working in the sector had a slack account. We could communicate informally and instantly with one another without having to wait for the formalities of glacial email communication. Of course we would still need email for communication with the outside world, but slack offers us the opportunity to make things transparent. People can breed resentment if someone forgets to include you in an email or not mention a meeting, alternatively people also get frustrated when they are included in endlessly pointless email threads (“What should we watch at the cinema this weekend?” We’ve all done it). Inter-generational differences can, however, always make wide scale adaptation of this type of technology tricky.
‘When I was first supervising PhD students they had to write letters from the field to get supervisory advice. 3 weeks to me, then I would answer the letter within a week, then 3 weeks back. [There is] nothing like instant feedback when you have a problem that needs your supervisor’s input! And personally I could do with email being a bit more glacial, so people wouldn’t complain at me when I didn’t answer their message within 24 hours!’ says EJ Milner Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.
Stay cool, use slack
In our never ending quest to become better practitioners or scientists, discovering tools that will improve our captivity to save endangered species from extinction is exciting, and offers us a glimmer of hope that things can become better.
‘I imagine conservationists aren’t the quickest field to jump aboard new communication avenues and this is potentially costing us time’, says Michael Burgass, PhD student at Imperial College London.
Whilst email was heralded as the killer of fax and traditional letter writing, and with it revolutionized communication in the 80s and 90s, email has now become a barrier to success. New and evolving technologies such as slack offer us a solution to improve things, and that is something to remain optimistic about.
Now all we have to do is promote wide scale adaptation within the conservation sector, tips?