Bryan Richard’s piece What if Presence and Voice are a Bad Combination? is asking a really important question. He writes:
Imagine for a minute if a percentage, any percentage, of the relevant email and instant messaging you get on a daily basis were phone calls. Would you get more work done? Or would your phone ring so much that you started screening your calls and dumping some directly to voicemail?
The telecommunications industry has spent a decade wiring us up with multiple phone lines, cellular phones, IM, email, and so on. I have two home landlines, an office extension, a couple of fax lines, two IM IDs, at least four VoIP IDs, and four email addresses. I’m not unusual. I’m just another ultra-connected person living in today’s hyper-connected world. The paradox of all this connectivity is that over 60% of calls end in voice mail today. It happens for two reasons — we use voice mail as a call screener, and we’re now so available in so many ways that the important calls don’t actually reach us because people give up.
Bryan advocates better time management.
All of us are either available or we’re not and I’m not sure it needs to be more complex than that. There’s a great book on time and project management by David Allen called ‘Getting Things Done’ that is worth everyone’s time to pick up. One of the basic tenets of it is that we need to limit our input and assign priority to everything that we need to do. The concept of marrying voice to presence doesn’t strike me as a step in that direction.
Bryan is right that presence isn’t a step in the right direction. However, availability is not binary. At any point in time, the likelihood I will take a call from my spouse, an important customer, my children, a head hunter, an employee, friends, the landlord, or the local travel agent trying to sell me on their services, is different. I am available to some people, but not others. What’s important isn’t necessarily urgent. I screen those calls today using caller ID, which is inefficient, inaccurate, and a breach of etiquette in some situations.
Presence is too blunt a tool to solve this problem.
Think about what presence means, for a second, and you will understand why it doesn’t solve the problem. The word literally means the state or fact of being present. It doesn’t mean available, interested, or free. It means present. Presence advertises physicality, not intention, and that’s where presence fails.
In business, we used to have assistants to screen calls for us. Those assistants knew which calls were relevant, and how willing we were to take those calls. They helped us to organize our days, and prioritize our time.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of a "gatekeeper" anymore. Cost cutting, and technology took those assistants away from us. As I’ve written before, technology created this problem, and technology will play a key role in solving it. Relevance filtering technology — software that can discriminate and make choices on your behalf — will become common over time. You’ll train it as your assistant, and then rely on it utterly and completely.
Bryan’s right. Presence, without managed availability, will be a disaster.