Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 13;   March 28, 2018:

Four Overlooked Email Risks: II

by

Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks.
A tangle of cordage

A tangle of cordage. Recipients of complex, intertwined email exchanges can feel as confused as this tangle looks.

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 correct
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 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 This problem is amplified if they actually send responses based on an outdated understanding of the situation.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.
Polychronicity
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  Go to top Top  Next issue: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III  Next Issue

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Where There's Smoke There's EmailAnd 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!

Reader Comments

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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