Talk to Me

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2005

I have questions about the efficacy of e-mail. But what could be bad about a technology that enhances business communication? And what could go wrong with a mechanism that allows us to efficiently contact anyone, anywhere immediately?

On the surface, nothing. E-mail, which has essentially supplanted memos and significantly replaced letters and phone calls in the business world, is nothing short of incredible in its inherent ability to keep us closely connected. Seemingly, the amount of contact we have with fellow workers, clients, suppliers and everyone with whom we need to communicate is way up.

So, with B schools and management gurus constantly espousing the virtues of better communication, what's my problem? Actually, I have no problem with e-mail per se. My concern is not with the technology, it's with us. It's about our judgment regarding when and how to use e-mail.

As good as any written business communication might be, it generally won't effectively convey nuance, the subtle and delicate shading of feeling or meaning so vital to full expression. Nuance often results in the higher levels of thought that are necessary for major decision making. When written words alone aren't sufficient to convey what is truly meant and there's a reasonable risk of misinterpretation, e-mail probably is not the best vehicle. Obviously what's best is a meeting or, if logistics are an issue, a phone call. I'm amazed to see people trying to negotiate deals via e-mail. I seriously question how smart that is. Sacrificing subtlety, tact and thoroughness, when they are much needed, for the sake of speed and ease can be a bad trade-off.

And then there's setting a meeting with no specific date in mind. I've seen far more time spent e-mailing back and forth regarding open dates when one phone call would have handily gotten it out of the way. It's a celebration for irony when the time-efficiency motive for going the e-mail route backfires.

How we use e-mail is as important to think about as when we should use it. Issues involving message length and who should be copied are all about judgment. I'm sure we've all received (and probably sent) e-mails that are either overly long (too much information) or too brief (not enough information). And sometimes we don't know why we're copied, while other times we're not copied when we should be.

The amount of time we spend writing and reading e-mails may be the largest issue. My sense is that it's too much. Because e-mail is so easy to use and access, it's changed how we spend our days. Unless our mission statements include something about frequent communication, we might reconsider our priorities. If our businesses are about making, creating, selling, advising or servicing we might think about spending more time working at what our businesses are about.

There really can't be meaningful guidelines on when and how to use e-mail. I just think we shouldn't automatically follow existing usage routines without asking ourselves appropriate questions. The human factor can make e-mail either one of the best things to happen to business or a curse. It's entirely up to us.

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