The Real Niel

CIOs, unified communications and the lost art of conversation

If you are a regular reader of my columns, you know that I try my best to provide some useful advice on how to deal with the topic of the month. This month's topic is unified communications.

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To be completely honest on this topic, "I got nuthin." Besides being a fan and user of unified communications, I really have neither advice nor opinion.

The Real Niel
Niel Nickolaisen

However, I do have some very strong opinions on the topic of how we communicate.

A few years ago, my uncle was appointed the president of a tiny college in the mountains along the California/Nevada border. One of the features of this college is that it includes a working ranch. Before classes start and after they end, the staff and students do their chores on the ranch. This college is so remote that they have no television, no radio and no cell phones. They do have an Internet connection to a single computer in the college library.

When my uncle described this to me, I was startled by this desolation, this lack of connectedness. So, I stammered, "What to you do for entertainment?" My uncle replied, "We have rediscovered the lost art of conversation."

I sometimes wonder if we, too, need to rediscover the lost art of conversation.

Recently, I was on the hook to do a Web video conference with a group in England. The technologists in England were bound and determined to use their cool Web conferencing tools for the meeting. Twenty minutes prior to the meeting start time, we tested the software but could not connect. We used instant messaging to try different options and alternatives. Ten minutes after the scheduled meeting start time, still no connection.

Via instant messaging I asked if we could just talk with each other on the telephone. The instant message came back: "No, we can make this work. We will reboot and start over." After the system reboot there was still no connection. Finally, 30 minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, I convinced them that we really could just use a telephone for the meeting. While web video conferencing would have been nice, I preferred something that worked. And the telephone worked just fine.

Does the following ever happen to you? Your staff is working through some issue and the communication is exclusively via email. At some point, someone decides to get your opinion and so forwards to you a mile-long chain of email questions, opinions and responses. When you look at how much time has elapsed between the first email and the most recent, you see that hours (if not days) have gone by. When this happens to me, I get the email chain participants together for a face-to-face conversation. It usually takes fewer than 10 minutes to get the issued sorted out and resolved. Sometimes conversation works like magic.

In rediscovering the lost art of conversation, I sometimes do something that is completely out of the box: I call people on the telephone and talk with them. No email, no instant messaging, no text messaging. Just a conversation. When I feel like living on the bleeding edge of communication, I will even go so far as to walk to someone's office, knock on the door and ask the person if we can talk. It does wonders. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference a simple conversation can make.

So, here's to the unified communication of conversation. Sometimes, it actually works.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at

This was first published in October 2008

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