In Part I of this series, we explored how email exchanges are susceptible to differences in the elapsed time between someone authoring a message and its recipients reading it. We called that elapsed time end-to-end latency. One consequence of what we called "end-to-end latency" is a lengthening of the time window during which incorrect message content might be mistakenly regarded as correct. In this Part II, we examine two more consequences of end-to-end latency.
- Scrambled time order
- Because of variations in latency, the time order (either receipt or origination) of contributions can differ from what would have been their time order if the conversation had been conducted in a synchronous medium environment, such as telephone, teleconference, or face-to-face. For example, in a synchronous medium, time order of contributions is identical for all participants. Not so in email, because of variations in end-to-end latency.
- During the During the end-to-end latency
period of a given message,
the conversation can evolve in
ways that render the message
irrelevant, incorrect, or
worse — incorrect but
regarded as correctend-to-end latency period of a given message, the conversation can evolve in ways that render the message irrelevant, incorrect, or worse — incorrect but regarded as correct. Any recipients who read their email in forward time order of receipt (or origination) might be wasting their time, especially if they try to respond to a message that has been overtaken by events. This problem is amplified if they actually send responses based on an outdated understanding of the situation.
- To manage this risk, some recipients might read their email in reverse time order of receipt (or origination). But they might have difficulty understanding later messages due to lack of context knowledge and backward references.
- In most synchronous meetings there's some control of the current topic. With more than three to five participants, the chair or facilitator calls on individuals, who are then expected to offer relevant contributions. In smaller meetings, cultural norms usually provide a relevance constraint that similarly ensures that contributions relate to the current topic. Such a conversation structure is called monochronic — it addresses one topic at a time.
- By contrast, few email exchanges are facilitated. They are therefore more likely to be polychronic — addressing two or more topics concurrently. Participants are free to contribute whatever they want whenever they want. And because of variations in end-to-end latency, contributions to a particular topic can continue to appear even after most participants regard the topic as closed. The resulting structure might contain multiple "threads," developing in one intertwined and sometimes-confusing jumble. In some cases, a single message might contain contributions to multiple threads.
- Some groups try to limit the confusion by means of email subject lines. By carefully pairing their contributions with appropriate subject lines, they can make conversation threads more obvious. But there is no central control. Each contributor is responsible for choosing the right subject line, and deviations are common. And topics can be reopened at any time. Often, confusion reigns.
The results we achieve with email are different from — and often inferior to — the results we would have achieved with actual conversation, either by telephone or face-to-face. Yet we use email because we choose not to spend resources on travel or state-of-the-art video conferencing. The choice might or might not be justified economically, but most organizations don't know, because they don't track the cost of bad decisions. First in this series Top Next Issue
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And if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!
- By Baylis, HigherEdByBaylis LLC
- For all 40 years of my active academic career as a college administrator, I believed that face-to-face communication was preferable to written communications. However, one afternoon, that all changed. As the result of the implosion of a benign meningioma due to a burst an aneurysm produced two life-changing events. It was as if a switch was thrown in my head and my thinking was no longer verbally based. I found myself thinking visually. I read or heard words my mind immediately went to a visual picture. I had to process that picture visually. To communicate back, I had to translate the pictures back into words. Responses will no longer instantaneous. I was fighting a fiendish deficiency, which I call "oral aphasia." I can no longer count on calling up words on demand. In order to have a meaningful oral conversation, I must rehearse what I intend to say before I utter the phrases.
- For the past decade, email has become my preferred means of communication because I have time to process my thoughts into appropriate language.
- Although I stated earlier that as an administrator I preferred face-to-face communication, early in my career I came to the realization that there were times when the written word was absolutely necessary. In legal terms, a verbal contract is not binding.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- When we take time to express to others our appreciation for what they do for us, a magical thing happens.
- See No Evil
- When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance.
And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
- Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"
- If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to
report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes
a top priority problem. What can you do?
- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good
and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 28: Playing at Work
- Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.
- And on September 4: How Messages Get Mixed
- Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message. Available here and by RSS on September 4.
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