Sunday, 19 June 2016

Communication Brevity and Context

You might've seen something like this:
"it works != it will work"
"it doesn't work != it won't work"
"The product can work != the product [does|will] work"
Hmm, let's extend them a bit:
"The product doesn't work != the product will never work"
"The product doesn't work != the product won't work for you and how you use it"
"It works != it works forever"
"It works != release it, no worries"
"It works != no more work is needed with this product"
These statements seem to be very context-detached - it's not easy to see who is involved or what is really meant.

With so little context how much meaning can be drawn? Do airlines work like that? Do they say a plane can work or that it can reach the destination but refuse to say that it will reach the destination?

What's happening here? "it works" and "it doesn't work" are conveying headline messages - maybe something I'd think of as feelings about a product. And maybe specific to what someone means - which also means that you can't read more into it if you don't know that person or know what they intend with specific words and phrases.

Can they be interpreted as something else? Yes, of course! But that applies to a majority of statements - there's always a flip side that can be emphasised.

Communication & Brevity
The words we use and with whom will (or should) differ. The interpretation will also differ. They are probably influenced by who we are talking with, shared history, how synchronised we are, dependent on which trading zone we find ourselves in and what level of interactional expertise each party has.

I'd assert brevity of communication works best when the people are "tuned in to each other". I'd also assert that this type of communication is a heuristic summary / short-hand.

Brevity of communication may have a place. But it's not a universal place. This doesn't mean it's bad, it means you should not lift it out of context and generalise as something always "good" or always "bad".

It's a form of short-hand communication and typically (to me) an invitation to discussion or dialogue.

When I was working as a system integrator in the "noughties" (2005-9) I would be testing product deliveries or part deliveries together in different combinations for them to progress to a next stage of work. I'd often remark on certain combinations to my project manager as, "good to go", "no, no good". These are quite similar to "this combination works" and "this combination doesn't". In the context of that relationship and product development that was perfectly ok - with that manager and the teams that I knew.

1. The two "OK"'s sit in different trading zones of language - different contexts and different meanings.
2. "OK" & "Not OK" are headlines - they don't really contain all communication. They would be accompanied by some form of report - whether verbal or not - of what was seen to work, what was not tested and where concerns might lie.
The people I worked with wouldn't be satisfied with "ok" or "not ok" on it's own. And I wouldn't be satisfied with giving such a simple message in total - i.e. it might be ok as a headline but not the whole story. Naturally, a team would want to know why something wasn't "ok" upon hearing "Not OK" and very often a team would want to know if something wasn't "ok" upon hearing "OK".

To me these are characteristics of each party in the communication chain.

This example might not look likes it's really relevant in the "devops" world but wherever there is a producer and receiver of a product (or information) I suspect the model applies. The content ("OK" or "Not OK" or "<something else>") is highly dependent on the context (who is involved, the different trading zones and different levels of interactional expertise).

1. Brevity of communication is very context-specific, and I'd assert has a personal element.
2. Communication content is driven by context - i.e. the vocabulary you use might well be different depending on how well you know someone.
3. Brevity of communication shouldn't be the totality of communication. It should be an intro to a discussion. So it can only ever be a headline.
4. Lifting brevity of communication into a generalised form is - to me - misusing and misapplying the example. I.e. it's incorrect to say if particular words between two parties isn safe or not.
5. Using a concise form of words detached from context as a good/bad usage example is misleading - and one should beware that it might be a a form of straw man argument, or lucid fallacy.
Important: Content over Labels: Context drives Content
So, to me, in communication - the words and phrases used are extremely context-dependent. They depend on the parties communicating. The exchange of ideas and intent should be dictated by the people in the conversation, discussion or dialogue, an appreciation of their respective contexts and level of interactional expertise.

Related Posts
Communication, Paradigms and Interactional Expertise
Lessons in Clarity: "Is this OK with you?"
On Test Results and Decisions about Test Results
Testing Chain of Inference: A Model
There is no test for "it works, every time, always"