With the advent of the Internet, the email has become one of the main ways of communication both in personal and professional environments. I won’t deny the simplicity of conveying ideas, instructions, files, etc., in an email. However, I have often referred to emails as weapons of mass miscommunication.
What do I have in mind when I state that? Emails that need several clarifications, wrong interpretation of emails either or both in the spirit and the letter, emails that go unnoticed, emails that waste reading time of too many people, etc.
While reading “Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger”, by Peter Bevelin, I thought of another good weak point of emails when reflecting on the following passage on the disadvantages of scale in large institutions:
[…] as you get big, you get the bureaucracy. And with the bureaucracy comes the territoriality which is again grounded in human nature. And the incentives are perverse. For example, if you worked in AT&T in my day, it was a great bureaucracy. Who in the hell was really thinking about the shareholder or anything else? And in a bureaucracy, you think the work is done when it goes out of your in-basket into somebody else’s in-basket. But, of course, it isn’t. It’s not done until AT&T delivers what it’s supposed to deliver. […]
(excerpt from the Lecture by Charles T. Munger to the students of Professor Guilford Babcock at the University of Southern California School of Business on April 14, 1994)
Think back of emails and how often we may think that some piece of work is completed when we have clicked on the “Send” button. But it’s not. Not only the work might not be done, but the communication might not even have taken place even if we think so. And it will not happen until the receiver at the other end of the channel has gotten the message and gone through it. Then, the above-mentioned criticism to emails apply (unclear message, clarifications, wrong interpretations…). Thus, no matter how much effort it costs to us breaking the inertia and comfort of our quiet work place, it is much better to accompany an email with a quick immediate follow-up phone call ensuring that the communication actually happens and explaining what is expected from the receiver.