07/27/2013 08:28 EDT | Updated 09/25/2013 05:12 EDT

When Communicating in Business, It's Synch or Swim

Dictionaries define triage as the process of the sorting of patients based on the urgency of their need for care. Fans of M*A*S*H know all about that. Same thing applies today in hospital emergency rooms as patients with a life-threatening conditions are treated before the broken toe or mysterious rash.

Today, in a world where we're increasingly subject to a firehose of information through myriad options, it turns out that the same concept needs to be applied to our communications and, of course, the term Information Triage has already been coined.

But for those who truly want to excel, Information Triage goes beyond determining which information to respond to and which to discard. The path to career success also means responding to the information using the correct platform. It's kind of like being in another country and asking for directions. If you're in Germany, you'll try to speak German, not Spanish or Japanese, for directions to your destination.

Let's step back a moment. For most of the information age, the rules of communication have been clear. We used real time or synchronous tools like the telephone and in-person meetings to communicate with someone when we needed an immediate response. We used asynchronous tools like mail, voicemail or email when we had a communication challenge where a delayed response was okay. When we wanted to book a meeting we wrote it in our daytimer, went through an executive admin or sent a schedule request.

This isn't true anymore.

How much more complicated could it be, you ask? Today's communication alternatives include mail, email, meeting requests, text messages, instant messages, telephone, voicemails, conference calls, Skype, Lync, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Yammer or whatever was invented this week or will be invented next week.

Like most people today I make the mistake of assuming that others communicate like I do. When I send an email or leave a voicemail it means I can wait for a response. If I text or IM or call repeatedly it means I need something ASAP. If I want to book a meeting I send a schedule request -- not an email. If I see something one of my social groups might find interesting I share it on social media.

Apparently my rules don't apply to everyone. Maybe not even to most people. It's apparent that I need to be more thoughtful about how I communicate.

Do you ever leave a voicemail for someone and get an email back? Have you had people text you while you're in a meeting and then get grumpy if you don't immediately respond? Have you missed a meeting because your calendar doesn't synch with the scheduling software your customer uses? Have you ever waited days for an email or voicemail response from someone who seems to have no trouble updating Facebook profile every 15 minutes? Do you sometimes wonder whether you're being shunned or if it's just their communication style?

Different communication styles can be generational, cultural, a function of maturity, related to technological savvy, a factor of education level or a reality of organizational standards. Wherever they come from they're important and they will materially affect your career success.

Today, understanding an individual's communication 'style' is a key criterion for career success. In the same way that 'the customer is always right' it's fair to say that the customers preferred communication vehicle is the right one -- whether it's the same as yours or not.

How your boss (and other people in your firm) communicates is equally important. Doing great work no one is aware of won't help your career much. It's up to you to communicate it in such a way that it gets responded to and acted on in time to make a difference.

There's no single agreed upon communication standard anymore and in most cases traditional rules of thumb simply don't apply.

In the future it's going to be just as important to be thoughtful about how you communicate something as it is to be thoughtful about your message.

I'm going to email a copy of this to my editor now -- that's how he likes to communicate. After that I'll call a customer, text my son and IM my boss. Sorry Facebook -- you'll have to wait today.