Social media and texting have drastically shifted how business teams communicate, allowing workers to connect and share business information wherever they are. But in terms of the way the technologies influence the quality of written communication and general writing skills, they might not deserve too many gold stars.

Joe Miller is Vice President of Learning Design at BenchPrep, which offers a cloud-based learning platform for professional training and credentialing organizations. He asserts that, far from companies suffering a talent shortage, companies actually have a skills shortage. Writing is one of the biggest areas of deficiency, and Miller points the finger of fault at the use of tools like Twitter and Snapchat.

Miller acknowledges that people have always had a penchant for brevity, and it still shows up at work today. For example, you easily can say HR, ROI, KPI and KSA in the business world and know what someone else means. And because of this preference and the fact users got hit with fees for every message they sent, technologies have been evolving to adapt to shorter forms of the vernacular for years.

But now, people are exposed to the new languages of social media, texting and other technologies incredibly early in their development. And despite pressure for teachers to teach traditional communication skills, the negative influence has been evident for well over a decade.

"Even before Twitter and traditional smartphones came out," Miller says, "employers from a 2006 survey were reporting that a large percentage of their entry-level college graduates were deficient in their writing skills, 25 percent from 4-year schools and almost half from 2-year institutions, with casual writing being one of the main factors cited."

And that gap is costing employers big money. A study from CollegeBoard found that blue chip businesses spend as much as $3.1 billion every year on remedial writing training. And companies spend the bulk of that ($2.9 billion) on current employees, rather than new hires. While the CollegeBoard study doesn't specifically attribute the reasons workers need more writing training, the 2006 survey--done in collaboration by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management--identifies technologies such as email and texting as potential sources for the deficiency.

"Always on" learning as a solution

So in Miller's view, it makes sense for business leaders to take a more continuous, omnichannel approach to communication and workforce training.

This means, for example, acknowledging that many current communication platforms are deficient when it comes to archiving information. Leaders need to develop options that combine instant message brevity with the detail and permanence of tech like email, and they need to create cloud storage to share and store key documents.

At the same time, they also need to admit that the workplace changes in a blink. They should continue to give workers devices and other tools that can help them seamlessly communicate and build an empowered culture.

In terms of first concrete steps leaders can take toward the above goals, Miller says you should audit exactly what communication tools you're using and why you're using them. While different areas might have their favorites, and while you should be highly inclusive in the identification and assessment of tools, make your objective to assemble the fewest number of communication services for providing the most optimal communication coverage. Consider elements like omnichannel access, intuitive user experiences and single-sign-on integrations to be must haves, and start with the following as your bare-bones mimimum.  

  • Company-branded email (G Suite, Zoho, Office 365)
  • Internal instant messaging (Slack, Teams, etc.)
  • Remote video conferencing (Zoom, WebEx, GoTo, etc.)
  • Project management (Jira, Trello, Asana, etc.)
  • Team collaboration (G Suite, Confluence, etc.)
  • Document archiving (G Suite, OneDrive, etc.)

"The most critical step is actually defining how everyone should use these tools," says Miller. "Ensuring that everyone in an organization is aligned on how and where to communicate what or to get information on this will be vital to building an effective communication plan." 

Grabbing the good from the technologies you've got

Still, Miller admittedly doesn't see just the "wrongs" of social media and texting. Options like Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and Slack all allow workers to reach out to each other more easily, for example. Those types of platforms also don't have the noise or clutter that other technologies like email are notorious for. And the casual writing habits people use in those platforms can be quite useful in those specific contexts.

"Beyond direct communication," Miller asserts, "smart business leaders will also recognize that embracing these types of tools can also promote healthy work cultures."

They can foster a sense of comradery, for example, by offering a place to reminisce or share fun information.

Putting what you need and think in writing has an enormous influence on efficiency and even can influence your ability to get funding and legal stability. And the reality is that neither formal nor tech-oriented writing are going anywhere. So as a leader, you shouldn't underestimate the worth of more continuous communication education that allows workers to slide effortlessly from one context to the next. Rather than choose between traditional and casual communication, keep your team competitive by ensuring they're proficient in both.

Published on: Nov 5, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.