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20 Oct 2020

The on-demand communication fallacy

Well established communication is the most critical factor for the team to work. Without sharing information, we can’t get anything done.

Poorly designed communication brings more harm than any other inefficient process. Let’s take Slack as an example. Slack made it effortless to ask anyone in the team at your convenience. You don’t know the date of the next release? You’re one question away from knowing it.

Although this is a powerful concept, there are numerous downsides to it. Instead of surfacing relevant information, we “actively query” knowledge from humans on-demand.

Problems with on-demand communication

Active Information Seeking is commonly used in social media. With algorithms forming the feed, new and engaging content is always there for you. No matter when you open the app.

Real-time chat apps are using a similar model. Except in the team environment, you don’t need “engaging” content. All you need is painless access to your colleagues.

#1 – Remote Teams

Having the team spread around the world immediately breaks an on-demand information querying model. You can’t rely on people being available whenever you are. You no longer have the luxury to ask people anytime.

A lot of US companies embraced Remote work but only within the US. Limiting communication to a time zone doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. It just removes some symptoms.

In the remote environment, communication flow should not depend on individuals. It decreases the overall resilience of the team and slows everyone down.

#2 – Idle Time

The time you spend asking people is the time that could be invested better. The time you wait for their response is even more precious. If you value time and speed, on-demand communication should not even be the option.

I’m not even talking about the effects of this model on other people in the team. Every message (information query) sent could break someone else’s flow. And coming back to the flow state would require additional effort + time.

#3 – Pressure & Anxiety

Heavy reliance on real-time communication brings additional emotional pressure. It is especially true for remote teams. There’s no way to know what the person on the other end feels. What might seem like a “friendly question” could be a distraction for others.

Passive Consumption > Active Seeking

The opposite of active on-demand communication is passive information consumption. With heavy reliance on systems, passive consumption guarantees relevant information is distributed to the right people at the right time. Setting up passive consumption for a team requires you to look at overall operations on the meta-level. Define who needs what and when.

The marketing team might need to know about the new feature release at least three weeks in advance. Or support engineers might need to know about bug fix deployment right away.

This way, you can set up processes to let relevant information come to people. Instead of people searching for relevant information themselves.

There are a few tools based on this model. For example, Mailbrew and Mailman allow choosing the terms for receiving relevant information. No matter when this information became available.

Fundamentals of Information Logistics

The idea of passive information consumption is based on information distribution rules. There are five core principles for information logistics. Each piece of circulating information needs to be examined against them.

It’s important to mention these concepts below aren’t isolated from each other. That means each of them defines the others.

What kind of Information?

First, it’s important to define the actual knowledge you want to distribute. It can be the date of the upcoming release or feedback from customers, bug reports, etc. Not everything has to be delivered passively.

Who needs the Information?

When the type of information is defined, it’s time to understand who needs to get it. How to select those people? A good approximation would be answering those questions:

For passive consumption to work, you have to clearly define recipients. But it’s also important not to make the information fully exclusive. There might be other motivated people in the team that you didn’t include.

When Information is needed?

You have “what” and “who” the next piece is “when”. Different kinds of information should be delivered at different times, depending on the recipient. For example, deploy of the critical bug fix could be delivered instantly. While information about upcoming releases can be delivered in weekly batches.

Determining the right time ensures that the recipient will consume the information. One of the reasons on-demand communication doesn’t work is because the time when the question is asked isn’t comfortable for the person answering.

What’s the right form of Information?

The form in which you deliver information plays an important role too. Some people prefer information presented visually, while others like long text messages. The same information can be presented as a presentation, visual diagram, text message, charts, etc. It’s another step to ensure the content you share is consumed.

Because sending the long document hoping people read it doesn’t guaranty anything. You can have all the information in the world in one Google Doc, but it would be impossible to read.

What delivery channel to use?

Just like the form of information ensures readability, the channel you use to deliver knowledge ensures receivability. Some people prefer Slack messages, emails, or even Issues on GitHub as information delivery channels. It’s up to the recipient to determine which channel would work best for them.

How to setup Passive Consumption?

You can automate pretty much everything with tools like Zapier and recently launched AhoyTeam. Including information distribution at the right time and through comfortable channels.

Actual technical implementation depends a lot on the tools your team uses. For example, do you host your code on GitHub, Bitbucket, or GitLab? Are you using Slack, Twist, or Microsoft Teams? What do you use for Task Management?

UPD. I’m currently working on a all-in-one tool for setting up Passive Consumption in the team. If you’re curious, feel free to check it out → CrossPatch


Passive information consumption has many upsides compared to on-demand communication. If you noticed, with the on-demand communication model, there is little or no consideration of other people’s preferences. While in passive consumption, other people’s preference is the only thing that makes the system work.

It takes time to set up, analyze the information flow, define interested people, etc. But the gain is a calmer, more efficient workplace where people do not bother each other for no reason.

Hey there, thanks for reading!

I hope you enjoyed the article. You can reach out via Twitter if you have any suggestions or feel like chatting about product development.

Next week article: Prioritization framework for your next integration.

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