Communication channels and how to use them
At the time of writing I’m still a student, have only relatively minor experience with working in companies and am in no way a trained project manager. I’m solely giving my thoughts on how the following has worked for me so far and describe what problems I’ve had.
If you’re reading this and are more qualified to talk about this or think I’m wrong (or right!) in some places, please reach out via E-Mail. You can find my contact info at the bottom of this post.
Since I’ve worked at a company for my mandatory internship semester at uni, I’ve started gathering actual experience (not the theoretical, uni kind) in the field of software engineering, and I specifically want to talk about the organization and communication side of things as there are a lot of problems that have not been solved for me so far, but that I’m thinking of solving with some tools and techniques. These problems currently affect me directly as well as in the past at my internship and are driving me mad, hence this post to organize my thoughts and share them with you.
We start off at the internship I’ve had in late 2021 to early 2022. The company I was working at is great and I’d wholeheartedly recommend them to acquaintances of mine, and they taught me a few things while I was there, but I ultimately left due to not being interested in the direction of the projects going on and wanting to pursue a slightly different route in my professional career.
Even though by far most of the projects went almost perfectly from as far as I could see and what colleagues told me, I had troubles with how communication worked in the project I was assigned to. And just to be clear, this isn’t an issue only true for that one company, this seems to be a perfectly normal thing to do today in a professional environment, and I frankly just don’t understand how that is.
To stop beating around the bush, I’m talking about communication in different forms: volatile/persistent and high/low volume.
You might be wondering what I specifically mean, so I’ll give you an example.
The group project from uni uses Discord to communicate, although this isn’t about how Discord might as well be the devil itself. Instead I’ll ask the question: How is Discord typically used? Well, as a volatile1, high volume communication channel.
Another question: How is E-Mail typically used? As a persistent, low volume communication channel.
In my opinion, these are the 2 main forms of communication channels relevant for group projects.
I don’t have a problem with this. Although, what I do have a problem with is if only one of these channels is being used. With my group project at uni only the former, Discord, is being used. This is absolutely horrible when announcements have to be made or persistent information needs to be stored and everyone should be able to easily reach important information.
You might be wondering why an announcement channel wouldn’t be created for low volume communication. The answer for me here is that Discord is an instant messaging service, you only use it if you want to message someone quickly. That’s it. No opening it randomly or having it open on a computer to receive messages every now and then.
With E-Mail, a low volume channel, this is different. I, and from what I can gather many many other people, have an E-Mail client open because you don’t expect to constantly be flooded with a lot of messages.
What I’m trying to say is: If you specifically use a low volume channel for communication, people using this channel will expect a low volume of messages. With a high volume medium, the opposite is the case. People will use channels for what they’re intended for, so they’re more likely to read (and memorize) messages with high priority/importance in a low volume channel.
Being a project manager
Being a project manager is tough. I’m the project manager of the currently still ongoing 2 semester long project for my uni course, and it’s hard to schedule everyone’s time perfectly so deadlines are met.
What’s even more challenging is not being able to convince your team that something has a deadline, and reinforce this deadline in the project plan, especially when you can’t exert any form of pressure on them, like them losing their job when they’re unable to meet deadlines often.
This has caused my plans to become… almost worthless, really. The Gantt Chart I was supposed to create as a project manager had to be changed more times than I care to admit. And sure, projects never go as planned, but they shouldn’t ever fail this miserably either.
Now, what do I blame this on? First, not being able to exert the aforementioned pressure on team members. Second, lack of communication, which nicely ties into what I’ve been talking about in the previous section.
Communication is key. Not communicating with the project manager is tying his hands behind his back. I can’t change something that I don’t know anything about. Haven’t implemented a feature in time? Sure, let me know that so I can plan the next weeks with that in mind. If I don’t know that, I’ll plan differently, though, and give wrong promises for deadlines that will inevitably not be met.
But instead of ranting further, how could I have fixed this? What could I have possibly done differently?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve talked to friends and family, and no one could help me solve this issue. Snitching on team members isn’t an option since others won’t know (or don’t want to know, drama is spicy) the full story, making them think I’m just a huge dick.
Let’s look at it from a different angle: What went wrong? Well, first off, I’d like to blame the communication channel, which in this case is Discord. Discord didn’t do anything wrong (this time), it’s just a wrong channel of communication. I think that a bit of information has been missed, and if a low volume channel was used, this could have been negated. But please, if you think I’m wrong and have a different idea, feel free to lecture me about it. I’d love to know what I could have done differently.
Being a project member
But not only being a project manager is hard, being a project member can be hard as well. After all, it’s not only the project manager that communicates with others, project members also communicate with each other for a number of reasons.
Here, it’s very important to have a high volume volatile communication channel. High volume should be self explanatory, it’s not a channel where announcements or similar are posted, but instead where members communicate and exchange ideas with each other. What’s interesting to you is most likely the volatile aspect. Volatility is crucial to me, as this keeps people from treating this communication channel, which is meant as a quick way to exchange ideas or problems, as a channel for documentation, or announcements for that matter.
This is something I’ve encountered in my internship semester. There was never a channel for documentation or a channel for announcements (which was used, anyway), so everything was exchanged over another high volume, persistent communication channel. Predictably, project members were asking the same questions over and over again, and information that should be documented never was.
Being an intern and seeing this situation is tough, especially if you’re unsure if your statements are correct. Out of fear of expressing a wrong statement2 I didn’t speak about this, although I should have, so not only could I have learned by having a conversation about this but the project manager as well, because the project would have been going in a better direction.
Most people don’t think about how they’re using communication channels, and I don’t blame them. It’s boring, and why would you have to think about it that much anyway, right?
But, I encourage you to think about where you send your next message to. If it’s an announcement, maybe chose E-Mail over your company’s Signal group. If it’s a short question instead, choose IRC over sending an E-Mail.
Technically, Discord is a persistent communication channel as it keeps a history of messages, but I view it as a volatile medium since the search functionality is utterly useless and finding messages on it might as well be impossible. ↩︎
Never be afraid to express a wrong statement. Doing this is the basis for being corrected and learning. ↩︎