Wednesday, March 9, 2011

E-mail ≠ Communication

Executive Summary:
E-mail is an effective system for the delivery or distribution of information.  It is not an effective method of dialogue or for conveying understanding.  Yet, we often use it for the latter and create waste by doing so.

The Rest of the Story:
In my observation, one of the greatest causes of waste, particularly rework and waiting or delay, in any organization is failed communication.  One of the most common mistakes is to rely on e-mail as a communication method.  E-mail is an indispensible tool, but I believe it is a mistake to assume it is an effective communication tool and to rely on it as such.

Please let me explain further.  First, let me clarify that when I use the term “communication” I mean the conveyance of an idea or understanding.  In this context, I find that e-mail is a poor tool compared to others that are available, such as in-person conversations, phone calls, or even instant messaging.  I believe this because, in my experience, when I have tried to hold a conversation, or convey clear understanding with the use of e-mail, I have generally failed, and I have watched others do the same.

Think about it.  If you wanted to explain to a family member why he or she should choose a particular investment plan coupled with long-term life and health insurance coverage, would you talk with that family member, or would you write a letter?  Probably you answered, “talk,” unless you are thinking that you would like to say what you have to say without an argument (i.e. avoid dialogue).  We intuitively know talking is better, but do we know why?

I believe there are three basic drawbacks to e-mail that make it a poor choice for truly communicating.
  1.  E-mail is one-directional:  as much as one can respond to an e-mail, because of delay, it is not a true dialogue (see point 2)
  2. E-mail lacks context:  because e-mail may be read hours or days after it was written, the environment or social context in which it was written is forgotten, particularly by the recipient
  3. E-mail does not convey mood, which is a vital element to communicating one’s ideas and establishing understanding

Reflect a moment.  Have you ever sent an e-mail with a comment that was intended to be sarcastic or humorous, but the recipient didn’t get it, or worse, took it the wrong way entirely?  Have you ever sent an e-mail, the response to which you urgently needed and, despite your “ASAP” and “URGENT” labels, your urgency was not taken seriously?  Have you ever received an e-mail with instructions and sat there for hours trying to decipher it’s meaning, or sent back a request for clarification and waited for hours or days for an answer that still wasn’t what you needed?  I’d be surprised if anyone answered “no” to either question, and this is where the waste comes from.

The waste of failed communications comes from misunderstandings that lead to undesired outcomes that have to be re-worked, delays while we seek clarification, or even resistance because someone got the wrong message altogether.  Often this waste is not estimated or recognized inside a business, but if you spend your day or week just tallying up the waste from this phenomenon that you alone experience, I think you may join me in my conclusion that it has got to be one of the greatest causes of lost productivity.

I used to sit next to a brilliant individual and a mentor to many in the business, who fell into the communicate-with-e-mail trap.  He used to complain to me over the cubicle wall how frustrated he was that others couldn’t follow simple instructions, and how much time he wasted trying to fix mistakes and teach others how to do something right.  He would send an e-mail with instructions for filling out a work request and putting files in the right formats and in the right places, and also request the information he needed.  Invariably, something would be placed incorrectly, or some piece of information would be missing.  He would send another e-mail trying to explain what was wrong and what needed to be done.  The recipient would e-mail back that they didn’t understand the problem and would ask questions.  He would explain again and answer questions.  This would go on for hours, or even days when the other party was several time zones distant.  Naturally, the work he was supposed to do was not getting done.  Sadly, in some cases the other party was only a few cubicles away.  Hours of time in rework and delay could be calculated for this one individual and the others working with him, that could have been remedied in a few minutes by walking over to another cubicle or by picking up the phone.  Now, if you are laughing at this guy, go look in the mirror and tell yourself, if you can, that you have never done the same thing.  I can’t do it.

So, we know that failed communication is a big cause of waste, and we intuitively (and maybe rationally) know that e-mail is not the best form of communication.  Why, then, when we know better, do we try and use it instead of talking?  I believe the answer is convenience.  When we decide that we need to communicate with someone, but we know that they are not at their phone, or think they might not like to deal with it at the moment, we e-mail.  Sometimes, we are trying to get our communicating done in the few minutes between meetings or just before meetings start, and a phone call is not convenient.  Sometimes we do it because we know that e-mail is one-directional, and we don’t feel like engaging in dialogue – even though we know we should.

So, I admitted earlier that e-mail is indispensible, but I’ve spent a page talking about how poor a tool it is.  Let me dodge the apparent hypocrisy with a short list of when and when not to use e-mail.

When to Use:
  • To deliver or distribute information:  reports, data, memos, links, etc.
  • To deliver short answers that do not need explanations
  • To request delivery of information
  • To ask questions that only need a one-line response such as, “Are you done yet?”

When not to Use:
  • To instruct, teach, or explain
  • To request an explanation
  • To address a delicate matter
  • To dialogue or attempt a conversation
  • To give or request an answer that is longer than a simple statement

If you send an e-mail following the guidelines above and end up, unexpectedly, in a dialogue or receiving a complex response, pick up the phone and get the whole story that way.  If you need to dialogue, but know the other party isn’t available, send an e-mail requesting a phone conversation or meeting.  If you need to communicate with several people, send the e-mail outlining what must be discussed or even stating what you propose, but request a meeting to establish understanding and consensus.

Because of the convenience of e-mail, and sometimes because it is less hassle to e-mail than talk, we often resort to e-mail as a communication tool.  However, because of its context-less, one-directional, devoid-of-mood nature, communication through e-mail often breeds misunderstanding, which is a cause of waste.  Avoid this trap by following the simple guideline that I outlined above and you will find yourself communicating more effectively, and much less frustrated by misunderstanding and the delay and rework that goes with it.

Stay wise, friends.


  1. Very Informative blog! I agree with the concerns with sending an email when it could be fast executed with a phone call. When we have to communicate overseas, it seems very easy to do it through an email but always a conference call has helped better.