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Communication Factors in Email
John Dorr

Intra-organizational communication has exploded in the internet age. Yet our approaches to communication have often not held pace with the change. Communicating through a new medium brings with it new challenges and new forces that mold the message being transmitted through the medium. Such is the case with email communications.

What follows are some of my own observations on this issue. These tend to address some of the more abstract, macro-organizational level and systemic issues that stack the cards in favor of miscommunication, mistrust, and ships passing in the night. I have been mulling over some of the issues related to the New Directions reorganization for a while – often too much time spent on it all.

Forces of Change
Some of what we are experiencing is the result of rapid change in organizational focus (some of the matters alluded to in letters from top administration – Unreached People Group (UPG) focus, teaming, and New Directions). One thing not mentioned directly, but that has great impact (maybe it is considered part of New Directions thinking), has to do with the top-down business model we have adopted.

Couple this with the swift changes in communication technology – not only in phone access, but more specifically in electronic mail access, and you have an instant mix for miscommunication, and mistrust.

We cannot say that all these issues showed up with the New Directions changes – they began a while before, as management styles changed at the IMB and on the field, and the ability to manage remotely changed with technology.

How does all this impact our current relationships – organizationally and personally? It seems to me we are attempting to manage, establish and maintain working relationships via email through a task-oriented hierarchical system. Email is very good for conveying hard, factual information (e.g., my flight arrives 10PM, etc.) but is very bad at conveying the softer contextual elements of communication (e.g., inflection, tone, facial cues, eye cues, etc.).

When you read the books on nonverbal communication (specifically a study conducted by Mehrabian) they state that 85-90% of face to face communication occurs in the nonverbal realm and not the words themselves. At least with a phone call, you add all the voice cues that we need to "read" a message. If you added some sort of video conferencing (with clear enough visuals to detect eye movement) you would at least bring up your levels of communication and reduce the number of mis-cues, misunderstanding, etc. that often disrupt working relationships

Literate to Oral
I think the impact of our communication styles and choice of medium, has been heightened as we move from a logocentric (literate) world back to a mixed oral/functionally based world (multimedia, video, etc.). This shift to a more orally based communication style brings with it an associated more subtle shift – from a "low context"1 communication culture to "high context" communication culture.

For instance, when you have a fairly well established interpersonal relationship where the verbal and nonverbal cues can be matched with consistency, I think we would find that email communications between these same two people would have significantly fewer "errors" or misunderstandings, higher levels of trust with fewer attempt to "read between the lines" than you would in the case where there was a fairly new relationship being maintained via email.

Another issue that email interjects into the normal process of communication is that of access and the lack thereof. There is a feeling or a sense that we all have access to almost anybody – we can write to anyone in our agency structure, including the president and trustees, and even the president of the denomination, should we so choose. This matter of access has created issues that are important for organizational communication. The expectations associated with the perceived access are often misguided.

Here are some possible reasons:

Ease of Distribution
Another issue has to do with ease with which material can be cut, pasted, and forwarded, such that communications meant for one person may be removed from their context and forwarded or BCCed to another with or without commentary. Thus, matters meant for one or two people in the context of a work or personal relationship can include others for whom the message was not intended, the contents of which they may or may not fully comprehend, but may be able to draw various conclusions from.

One final aspect of email that impacts communication has to do with a real dilemma for those in decision-making positions. Because those in decision-making positions do not have any way of parsing the urgent, important, FYI, personal and casual communication from all other communication that pops up on their screens, there is a real danger of both information overload and inability to address matters in order of priority without at least opening most emails.

Most people probably address the matter of priority based on who sent the email and the subject in the header. Managers taking this approach may open and begin responding to those emails based on their own expectations:

By responding to emails with the first two points in mind, a manager could be selectively responding to emails without knowing the full context, content or particular expectation riding on an email from a person related organizationally, but not necessarily high in the communications loop.

A friend of mine in the US Embassy indicated that he received about 300 emails a day as part of his job in the political section. This is done so that everyone in any one particular administrative region is up on the issues of that region and can thus operate, decide and provide input to colleagues and superiors from the same set of data. Most of the communications are no doubt FYI in nature and do not require response, but it is still a heavy load to parse through.

Communication Factors
This great diversion into email is only to highlight one aspect of our changing environment (an important one, mind you) and how it might impact organization, work relationships, trust factors, and general operations. I think these factors relating to communication need to be understood and some simple measures taken to facilitate proper communication in our ecomm (email communication) world.

Issues and Suggestions

                       !          –     Item needs addressing urgently
                       ~         –     Please respond to this item
                        FYI     –     For your information (no need to respond)
                        #         –     Please do not forward or copy to others (either personal or confidential)
                        ?         –     Please clarify this point or matter.

Ending Thoughts
These are just some things that I have been thinking about lately (with some suggestions) as I struggle to know how to relate, work and participate in our organization.

Obviously, these observations and suggestions will not solve any difficulties arising out of a difference in vision or call; neither will it soften the blows that one may experience when everything changes so fast that one is not able to keep up personally or spiritually. (I have been there a several of times.)

But it could help us reduce the chances of miscommunication that could unnecessarily erode trust and relationship.
1 Low context refers to the amount of contextual data (setting, others present, tone, body movements, etc.) necessary to understand the intent of the message. Western literate societies are considered low context in that we tend to communicate much like we write – with facts and to the point, with supporting arguments. High context societies, like many Arab societies, need all the nonverbal cues associated with the communication to understand the true intent of the communicator.  What is said is not necessarily what is meant.

Copyright © John Dorr 2000
Permission granted for free download and use for personal or non-profit uses. All other rights reserved.

February 2000, Posted April 2000

What is Worldview?       What is a People Group?
Cities and Peoples     How to Do Research on the Web
Culture, Learning and Communication
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