Introducing Christianson’s Law of Communication Platforms

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

As I write this, my university is on the verge of adopting Microsoft Teams, a slack competitor (which is also used by some groups I am a member of on campus). I just can’t get excited about another platform. I don’t need another platform. I have way too many already. By my count, these are the systems I have used to communicate professionally and personally in the last month, in general order of frequency:

  • Email
  • Cellular voice
  • SMS
  • iMessage
  • Facetime video
  • Slack
  • Zoom
  • WhatsApp!
  • Google Hangouts
  • LifeSize Cloud
  • H.323 Videoconferencing
  • WebEx
  • Skype
  • Infrastructure Canvas
  • Basecamp/Highrise
  • Land-line voice (required by my institution…ack.)
  • Facebook Messager
  • WeChat
  • Twitter DM
  • Asana
  • and Fitbit

Yes, %&#ing Fitbit.

You see, a much younger business colleague of mine works at a new startup. And he is the quintessential digital native, tied to the smartphone and hopping from one app to another faster than I do about anything these days. He communicates by whatever means is in front of him. And whenever he has the desire or thought to communicate. So I now get work-related messages via the Fitbit app!

As a generation Xer teetering over 50, this doesn’t fit nicely into my workflow.

I have always believed in going where your clients are, but keeping up with all these platforms is reducing my productivity to practically zero, if not negative. I am spending more and more time switching platforms and keeping track of messages and less and less time doing important work.

Brook’s law says that the productivity of a team goes down as the number of team members increases. This is due to several reasons, but the main factor is the increasing number of communication channels and the time spent maintaining those channels. With each new team member (n), the number of communication channels increases according to the formula:

Communication Channels = n * (n − 1) / 2

For example:

5 developers = 10 communication channels to maintain
10 developers = 45 communication channels to maintain
15 developers = 105 communication channels to maintain
20 developers = 190 communication channels to maintain

The result of this combinatorial explosion is that the team’s productivity decreases as you add more people to the project.

I hereby bravely — and humbly — put forth a new law which calculates productivity as communication platforms increase among a group: Christianson’s Law of Communication Platforms.

My law states: The productivity (p) of each individual in a community will be related to the number of people in a community who are communicating with each other (w), and the number of communication systems (s) used by this community. The formula is as follows:

p = 100 — ( (0.2 *w) * (s * s-3)

In Christianson’s law, p is expressed as a percentage of individual productivity. Obviously, we are all willing to sacrifice some personal productivity for the benefits of interacting with others, getting help, selling and buying, etc. So in any real world situation, we can expect p to be less than 100 percent — consider p to be a measure of work effectiveness, not efficiency of communications.

Let’s run a few numbers and see if it jives with observations.

  • With ten people in a group and two platforms that you have to check for communications, productivity will be at ninety-six percent. So you are giving up just four percent of your productivity to be able to communicate with your colleagues.
  • Change the number of people in your group to fifty but keeping just two communication platforms and your productivity drops to eighty percent; twenty percent of your energy is devoted to keeping track of messages, logging in and checking for messages, switching to the right app to talk to the right person.
  • Back to the scenario with ten people in your group, but increase the number of communications channels to ten, and you have reduced your productivity to a measly ten percent. Ninety percent of your productivity is sucked up managing communications.
  • Finally, let’s look at the list of people I regularly communicate with (~30) and the approximate number of communications channels lists above (25). My productivity is -1,700. Looking back at my goals for the past few years — and my productivity — this number seems about right. I declare Christianson’s Law proved!

What do you think? Platforms seem to be the future. Standards not so much. Are we really getting less productive with more platforms, or can we maximize our productivity by using as many platforms as possible? Does this “law” reflect your work life? Let us know in your comments below.




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J Scott Christianson

J Scott Christianson

UM Teaching Prof, Technologist & Entrepreneur. Connect with me here:

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