Email is the most widely used computer-mediated communication technology. It provides a text-searchable memory of organizational communication and is exponentially faster than paper-based communication. People have adapted their use of email to overcome its media leaness, and expanded its role well beyond simple asynchronous communication. But while email has become a universal access medium in many organizations, it is not a universal solution to organizational communication needs. You can find an alternative that is superior to email by matching the needs of the tasks to the characteristics of the communication technology.
In the following literature review, I detail some of the problems with email as evidence that it is not a universal solution to communication needs. I then explain some of the characteristics of media used in the literature to explain how media relate to communication needs.
Problems with email
A number of problems related to email are collected under the term “email overload”.
A literal form of this overload is the large number of messages in email inboxes. In one study, Whittaker and Sidner (1996) found users had an average of 2,400 messages in their inbox. (Depending on the email software being used, this can create problems not only for users, but for system administrators, as the massive files required to store these email inboxes either exist on, or are backed-up to, file servers.)
Email overload is also happening because the number tasks for which it is used has been steadily growing. Email is used for “document delivery and archiving; work task delegation; and task tracking. It is also used for storing personal names and addresses, for sending reminders, asking for assistance, scheduling appointments, and for handling technical support queries” (Whittaker and Sidner 1996).
It is not only the number of emails that is overloading users, but also the fact that “…senders of e-mail often expect an immediate response” (Thomas et al. 2006).
The use of email also creates a sense of being overloaded in indirect ways. Time-consuming tasks can be prompted by seemingly innocuous, short emails. “… Managers reported that they commonly received messages that were fewer than 4 lines long but generated several hours of work” (Thomas et al. 2006).
A problem associated with email that doesn't fall under “email overload”, is the lack of version control. As McCarthy et al. (2011) reported, using email “to transmit documents for revision between writers and editors made revisions difficult to track and content difficult to reuse.”
Another problem outside of overload is email's limited capability to communicate emotion, which can has negative effects on an organization. “Emotions… play an important role in relationship development and group identity” (Byron 2008). Building common ground among a team will be hampered by incomplete communication of emotion.
More email is not the answer
Given that one of the problems with email as a medium of communication is “email overload”, the way to overcome the problems with email is not likely to be yet more email. But that solution has been proposed for the limitations of accurately communication emotion: “… Email recipients who seek clarity by asking questions or stating their interpretation of the message are more likely to accurately perceive emotions from email communication” (Byron 2008).
Similarly, a solution proposed to deal with the inadequacies of email as a method of task management is to have users (effectively) send more emails to their own inboxes. “A critical problem occurs with ‘action items’ that either can't be done immediately or don't need to be done at once. Here it would be useful to program these items so they would re-appear as an action item, as the deadline approaches” (Whittaker and Sidner 1996).
There is no reason to increase the complexity to email software or to add more emails to inboxes. There are alternative methods of computer-mediated communication.
Choosing an alternative to email
One approach to deciding which alternative to email to use is to evaluate each in relation to the needs of the communication tasks. The following sections review three frameworks for matching communication media to communication needs.
The first way you can choose an email alternative is by matching the amount of richness needed in the communication to the richness of the alternative communication medium. “The term richness refers to the ability of information and media to change human understanding, overcome differing conceptual frames of reference, or clarify ambiguous issues in a timely manner.” (Markus 1994)
In general, the level of richness needed by a message is directly related to how equivocal or potentially ambiguous a message is. Messages with little potential for ambiguity or misunderstand require little richness; messages with high potential for misunderstanding require high richness.
A rich communication medium…
- offers timely feedback,
- carries multiple cues,
- allows language variety, and
- allows personalized messages.
Timely feedback, for example, happens in face-to-face communication. The sender of the message (the person speaking) will begin to get feedback from the recipient (the listener) even before the message has been completely sent (meaning, before he or she is done speaking).
This almost-immediate feedback is in the form of facial expressions and other forms of body language. The sender can adapt the message based on this feedback.
Methods of communication without timely feedback prevent this on-the-fly adaptation. And since the message can't be adjusted based on feedback, miscommunication is more likely, if a message is potentially ambiguous.
While the sender of a message in face-to-face communication can receive timely feedback through the facial expression of the recipient, he or she can also reinforce the meaning of a message through his or her own facial expressions. Body language, tone of voice, etc., can all be combined to help communicate clearly. These are multiple cues, and the more of these cues that a medium carries, the richer it is.
Not all media support all languages. For example, early email technology supported only the ASCII character set, and so only supported languages that could be represented in ASCII. A rich media allows the sender to use whatever language best suites the message.
Rich media allow messages to be personalized, so that the message can be customized to match the preferences or needs of either the sender or the recipient.
The second way to evaluate communication technology is by “focusing on the ability of media to synchronize communication and collaboration processes in groups” (Wagner and Schroeder 2010).
The communication process of an organization can be broadly generalized either as conveyance—the exchange of information—or as convergence—the development of shared meaning. For example, reporting the results of a test is a conveyance process, while determining the implication of those results is a convergence process.
Conveyance processes are best supported by media that allow for timely feedback so that clarification can be requested immediately, if needed. Also, the media should prevent “parallelism”, the simultaneous discussion of multiple issues. The communication-feedback-clarification cycle for one item should be completed before beginning the cycle for the next item.
In contrast, convergence processes are best supported by media which delay feedback and allow parallelism. Delayed feedback is preferable for convergence because the feedback is not going to be a request for clarification, but instead will be negotiation. The people involve need time to deliberate independently over each step in the negotiation of shared meaning. Parallelism is helpful since it prevents any negotiation from becoming a road-block to other negotiations. The people involved won't be rushed to complete their deliberations over a certain issue in order to move on to the next one. Each convergence can happen at its own pace.
Conveyance – exchange of information
- high immediacy of feedback to allow for immediate clarification or expansion
- low parallelism to prevent distractions
Convergence – development of shared meaning
- delayed feedback to allow for deliberation
- high parallelism to prevent one issue blocking progress on others
The third way to consider an alternative to email is to focus “on the use of communication media in the presence or absence of common ground between communication partners” (Wagner and Schroeder 2010).
Common ground among members of a group comes from shared experiences or shared knowledge. Common ground enables effective communication.
Media that are “highly interactive” promote the development of common ground. To be highly interactive, a communication medium should support:
- Simultaneity - messages can be sent and received at the same time
- Sequentiality - messages are not sent out-of-turn
- Reviewability - messages can be reviewed later
- Revisability - messages can be revised before sending
- Media richness - offers timely feedback; carries multiple cues; allows language variety; allows personalized messages
Wagner and Schroeder (2010) define an additional characteristic that they believe is not covered by any of the three theories covered. They call it ‘refactoring’:
“...content refactoring clearly constitutes an important capability that is unique to wikis: users continuously modify content after the initial communication event.”
It’s debatable whether or not ‘refactoring’ is unique to wikis. Refactoring is simply revision to a document with version control, and while wikis may be unique in that they are intended to be used for refactoring, other electronic collaboration and communication systems could be used in that way. But regardless of whether or not it is unique to wikis, refactoring is another characteristic to consider.
The problems with email include:
- The perceived expectation of an immediate response
- An incongruity between the amount of work required to make a request and the amount of work required to respond to that request
- “Mission creep” as email is used for tasks beyond its intended use
- Media leanness, especially for communicating emotion
- It is ill-suited to promoting the development of common ground
- It is ill-suited for “conveyance” (the exchange of information)
You can find a superior alternative to email by matching the communication needs of a particular group or organization with communication technologies based on the characteristics from the theories of Media Richness, Media Synchronicity, and Common Ground.
Byron, Kristin. 2008. “Carrying too heavy a load? The communication and miscommunication of emotion by email.” Academy of Management Review 33, no. 2: 309.
Markus, M. Lynne. 1994. “Electronic mail as the medium of managerial choice.” Organization Science 5, no. 4: 502-527.
McCarthy, Jacob E., Jeffrey T. Grabill, William Hart-Davidson, and Michael McLeod. 2011. “Content Management in the Workplace Community, Context, and a New Way to Organize Writing.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 25, no. 4: 367-395.
Thomas, Gail Fann, Cynthia L. King, Brian Baroni, Linda Cook, Marian Keitelman, Steve Miller, and Adelia Wardle. 2006. “Reconceptualizing e-mail overload.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 20, no. 3: 252-287.
Wagner, Christian, and Andreas Schroeder. 2010. “Capabilities and roles of enterprise wikis in organizational communication.” Technical Communication 57, no. 1: 68-89.
Whittaker, Steve, and Candace Sidner. 1996. “Email overload: exploring personal information management of email.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pp. 276-283. ACM.