Email was first hailed as a way to make communication more instantaneous, but it can’t substitute more immediate forms of communication that allow for back-and-forth discussion. Here is why email falls short in primacy as a communications method, and how to fix its shortcomings.

by Doug Rabold
March 1, 2021

When I deliver certification training, I make it a habit to ask the class if there are any bullet point items on the slides that particularly speak to them. Through hundreds of slides across many classes, there are some items that get the trainees’ attention with varying degrees of regularity. Yet without fail, every class has seized upon one particular short phrase – despite its being nestled into a single slide containing no less than five additional bullet points.

Buried in the middle of the unit on Leadership within the HDI Support Center Manager certification material is a seemingly self-evident but oft-ignored platitude: “Email is for information, not Communication”

What invariably ensues is a very frank and spirited discussion around the misuse of email as a means of communication in the workplace. Each issue that arises is rooted in the fact that email is a one-way means of written messaging that has become a preferred “means of communication” by many in the corporate world. But here are the oft-cited shortcomings with email:

Delays

This is a result of the two-edged sword of email being used as a communication tool requiring a response. It is certainly convenient to send an email to multiple recipients, but the message is sent at one point in time and read at another point in time that could vary by seconds, minutes, days, weeks or even months. If the sender is waiting on a response from the recipient(s), email should not be expected to be a timely means of getting a response.

Volume

Speaking personally, I have two corporate email boxes in which I receive a combined average of 800 emails per day, or 4000 emails per week. Far too much of my time, and of many others’ time based upon the discussion in the Support Center Manager classes, is spent trying to cull the wheat from the chaff of the inbox.

Email Conversations

Those endless back-and-forth email chains can be particularly problematic. They usually involve multiple recipients who may be responding to one particular link in the chain, while others have already responded to that or may have moved onto other items around the same topic. I have some email chains that are now measured in dozens of responses and stretch back months involving an ever-expanding list of people.

Clarity/Misunderstanding

This is one of the biggest pitfalls of trying to use email as a means of communication. Very few people are adept enough at the use of the written word to fully explain something while eliminating all possibility of misunderstanding on the part of the reader. The written word lacks the nonverbal elements that comprise the bulk of how we interpret interpersonal communication. It is consequently very easy for the reader to infer meaning that was not intended by the writer, and unfortunately this is often taken negatively.

Documentation

I find this to be a particularly problematic reason for using email as a means of communication. People in leadership positions say that they were taught to document conversations or decisions via email, so that there is no future plausible deniability by anyone. This is a cultural problem that goes far beyond simple communication best practice. If this describes your team, there is a lack of trust at the core.

The Solutions

Having identified the challenges related to using email for communication, there are fairly simple solutions for each. Here are some of the best, often suggested by those I train:

Delays

If a timely response is required, use a timely communication tool. There are plenty of telepresence tools available that allow for brief unscheduled and highly interactive virtual meetings. Action items can be addressed in the moment without delay.

Volume

Start with those emails that are under your direct control. Unsubscribe from vendor and even internal distribution lists that do not add value to your role and responsibilities. Next work to eliminate push reports to your inbox by replacing them with on-demand pull reports or live dashboards that you can reference when needed.

Email Conversations

In-person or telepresence meetings are key to eliminating all of the back-and-forth emails and the many out-of-sequence responses that result. A 15-minute meeting can avoid dozens of emails and get everyone involved aligned quickly, identifying any gaps in understanding and addressing or assigning ownership of all action items.

Clarity/Misunderstanding

There is no substitute for being able to see, hear, and converse with the speaker to improve clarity and minimize misunderstanding. Adding the nonverbal clues of posture, voice inflexion, passion, and attentiveness, the viewer can better understand the message. If there is something unclear, it permits clarifying questions in the moment rather than a series of emails.

Documentation

If you always have to prove something happened or didn’t happen, then you are constantly looking over your shoulder rather than toward the horizon. When decisions are made, they should be captured, published and stored in meeting notes. When discipline is needed, it should be documented on appropriate disciplinary forms, not via email.

How then should email be used? Simply stated, the only truly effective use of email is to inform; informing is one-way messaging. When new policies or procedures are enacted, they should be properly documented, but awareness can be increased by an email message referring those affected to the full document. Email is also fertile ground for awareness campaigns related to Enterprise Change, upcoming training, and volunteer opportunities. Clearly each of these require one-way messaging only, not dialogue.


Doug Rabold is Founder and Principal Consultant of Bold Ray Consulting in San Antonio, Texas. As an IT Operations Leader he has had direct oversight of over a dozen different ITIL processes including Change Management, Problem Management, Configuration Management, Knowledge Management, IT Asset Management, IT Procurement, Telecom Expense Management, Quality Assurance and Business Relationship Management. Beyond Service Management, Doug is an acknowledged expert at customer experience and employee engagement and has led teams of up to 300 resources and managed contracts and asset values totaling over $50 million.

A lifelong learner, he attended the University of Illinois and holds certifications in ITIL Foundations, HDI Support Center Director, HDI Problem Management, HDI Technical Support Professional, HDI Support Center Manager, Knowledge Centered Support Principles and Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt. He is also an HDI Certified Instructor and is serving on the HDI National Board of Directors as National President.

Tag(s): supportworld, communications skills, communications technology

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