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We can't live without it, but we're paying a price.

By Kate (July, 2003)

You click away on your keyboard and in minutes you have sent information, documents, and pictures. No longer do work schedules need to be altered in order to be available for phone conversations with business associates in different countries or time zones. Email is definitely one of the best business advantages in the computer age.

Or is it?

Do you find yourself avoiding answering your telephone, letting your voice mail answer in your place? Do you respond to your phone messages via email? Do you avoid passing on bad news by phone, opting instead to send an email? Do you sit behind your desk and rely on email communication to manage your staff?

Do not misunderstand me; I rely on email and agree that it is a wonderful business tool, but has this tool become abused? As email users, each of us is charged with making sure we don't misuse it so that it becomes a negative means of communication. For all the benefits of email, there are at least three major drawbacks.

First and foremost is how impersonal business communication is becoming. Remember when, in the not-so-distant past, information was exchanged on the telephone or in person? These conversations often included a comment or two about family, friends, or world events. A few chuckles exchanged along with facts and figures. Remember how more connected to that other person you felt, how those few extra minutes worked to cement your relationship?

Black letters on a white background often fail to pass on the humor of a voice, and fingers don't seem to have the minutes available to type the few seconds of anecdotes the voices used to exchange.

Second, as managers we need to be aware of the length of time spent on writing, answering, and clarifying emails. Do you or your staff spend precious moments composing lengthy emails in an attempt to accomplish the impossible: an email so clear that there is no room for misunderstanding or questions? Go back through your inboxes and count how many emails were written in response to the original one sent or received.

I have a doozy that I put on the bulletin board above my computer to remind me that email is not always effective. What started as a simple question sent to three people ended up as a twelve-times forwarded message. By the time the last response was sent, the email now had nothing to do with the original question. During the course of the forwarding process, people started firing off responses because they felt they had to defend themselves. As the email grew, so did the number of people in the "CC" box.

Five hours later the question still had not been answered, but the tension level had soared. Productivity was down as employees spent their time discussing each response as it was added.

All of this could have been avoided had anyone, including myself, talked to the people involved rather than emailing -- a conversation where questions could be asked and answered within minutes, not still left unanswered after several hours.

Finally, have you ever sent an email to a group of addresses, then realized seconds after hitting "send" that one or two should not have been included? Frantically you search for an "unsend" button, knowing it doesn't exist but hoping, just this once, you can find it.

You put your head in your hands, utter an expletive or two under your breath, then wait for the fallout. But the damage is done, and when the messages start filling your inbox, you avoid them, rationalizing that no one knows how often you read your email so the senders don't know you know they're there.

Yet every time you go to your inbox they're still there, calling out to be read.

AHA! You've got it! You don't have to face these people; you can email a response and stay safely hidden behind your office walls!

Email is an effective business communication tool? I guess it depends on the situation.

Note: Web expert Brett King looks at email from another angle -- one that could seriously hurt your business. To read is take on the subject, click on "Tech Topics."

(Note:Any business or industry topics you'd like to see Kate write about? Email her at katescollagecln@aol.com.)



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