Context trumps content

It's true on the Web, and just as valid in many business communication scenarios

In a digital world where information is quite literally everywhere and many are cashing in on content, it's tempting to get caught up in the wave and want to apply those principals to your business. More content equals more information equals more money.

Not necessarily.

It has been widely said that content is king, but context is what really should be at the top of your business's priority list.

Case in point: Twitter. By offering a completely customized stream of information in a context that users want, Twitter has managed to grow faster than any other communication medium, ever. As a user, you select what information reaches you (people or businesses you follow) and block anything you don't want. Your choices provide the context that gives the information value. Because it's all within your context, you find it valuable.

To put it another way, Twitter is about personalization. Twitter gives you tremendous freedom to custom-design the terabytes of information on the Web into a convenient stream that's meaningful to you. It's about personalizing your world, populating it with people you want (even if they don't know you exist) and with whatever thoughts you want (even if no one is listening).

Whether you're using Twitter to try to advance your business or it's just for fun, you can learn something from Twitter's success. The microblogging powerhouse's framework for generating personalized context can be applied in countless business settings.

Context customization: Not just for the Web

In a simplified scenario from the world of project management, to be effective, a manager must communicate with members of each target audience group through different contexts customized for each. In effect, the manager must replicate Twitter's option for users to hit the "follow" button. When you break it down, a manager's most crucial function is to work with his audiences (internal and external) to determine what information is relevant and in what context it provides value.

The groups in our project management example are: a client for whom the project is being done, a team that performs the project tasks, and the project manager between the two. Each group is concerned about different things and thus requires information (content) in a different, customized context. Each wants its own "Twitter stream" to include "tweets" relaying only information relevant to them.

The manager must recognize the following:

  • The client only wants to see "tweets" about major milestones and larger aspects about the project and schedule.
  • The team only wants to see "tweets" about specific tasks.

Navigating the sticky role of bringing the Twitter concept and level of context customization to this scenario can be difficult. However, it can be accomplished with a conscious effort to understand and act in accordance with your audiences' content needs and contextual preferences. This is the role of a project manager.

For instance, project meetings should include only the parties for whom the information being discussed is intended. Team members concerned with ground-level tasks don't need to hear a 30,000-foot project scope conversation between the project manager and the client. They wouldn't subscribe to those "tweets" if given the option. This information is out of context given their needs and objectives.

What's more, it puts team members in the awkward and time-consuming position of having to sift through the information to find what is relevant. Even more time is wasted if the project manager also receives information out of context from team members. Many a project day has been lost by managers digging through mounds of project chatter to unearth the relevant information buried deep beneath.

The same principle is true of project-related e-mails. The client doesn't need to be copied on messages explaining team member responsibilities in the language of Gantt charts, work-breakdown-structures, constraints and dependencies. For the client, this out-of-context information is just noise. At its worst, this creates the impression that the project manager is out of touch with the client's needs and is an unnecessary administrative burden on the project.

Elsewhere in project management, the creation of a schedule with customizable reporting can provide a level of context customization even more analogous to Twitter. The client can choose to see only the percent complete on each major milestone. The team members can elect to receive only information about each particular task.

Each report or view of the schedule is in the language each group requires and in the context it demands. It's just as if the members of each group selected who to "follow" on Twitter.

Create context to add value

In most business scenarios, a failure to customize context can lead to a complete breakdown, costing all parties time, money and results.

Information without context is, essentially, worthless. In management, whether you're a formal project manager who is leading a team or who is responsible for satisfying a client, the client doesn't need chatter. The team working for you doesn't need noise.

Both need, in context, the information required to complete the project successfully. The trick is that both audiences (think about the different customer segments in your business) require different information. Different aspects of project information are important to them. They want to see "tweets" that are relevant to them -- nothing more, nothing less.

Business is about customized communication in context. Providing this to consumers is what has led to Twitter's meteoric growth. Internalizing those lessons and applying them to how you manage your work can greatly contribute to your company's success and your personal professional development.

Just as in the world of project management, in the world of information consumption, there's only one way to cut through the clutter. Context retains its title, even with sweeping changes in the way we communicate.

So where does this leave Twitter?

To bring things full circle, what does the future hold for Twitter as a business? As Twitter attempts to continue on the path of customization it has charted for itself and move from consumer darling to financially stable enterprise, it already is hitting roadblocks. These could hinder its rapid growth and even put the long-term future of the company in jeopardy.

By implementing policies that interfere with a deeply personal experience, Twitter is polluting the essence of what makes it fun. The company is diluting users' ability to personalize, even trying to find ways for companies to buy their way into context choices people should be making for themselves.

If history is any guide, survival will depend on how open Twitter is to continuing to allow its users to customize their experiences and create their own context. While the consumer's insatiable appetite for information in context likely means the concept of microblogging is around for the long-haul, it remains to be seen if Twitter will remain along for the ride.

If Twitter loses sight of the personalized context capability that propelled it into the stratosphere, it will likely be left on the ground looking up when the next wave of customized communication in context takes flight.

Mark Phillips is the product manager and lead spokesperson at Vertabase project management software. He blogs about project management at www.vertabase.com/blog and can be reached at mark@vertabase.com.

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