Weaknesses of E-mail Communication

As a companion to my post about the strengths of e-mail communication, I’ll include here some of the risks and downsides I’ve observed to communicating via e-mail.

Weaknesses of e-mail communication:

Effectiveness is solely dependent on receiving party’s dilligence in checking for messages. “But I e-mailed you the document last week, didn’t you get it?” Ever heard that or similar comments? E-mail is great as a form of follow-up communication, and possibly primary communication if you know for certain that the recipient checks their e-mail account regularly. However, you’re really taking your chances if you’re relying on an e-mailed message as the sole communication of a message of any importance.

A close friend of mine recently mentioned that she was concerned as to whether an individual was going to show up for the engagement to which they’d been invited and agreed to attend several weeks ago. On the afternoon before the event, my friend sent out a follow-up e-mail and was panicked when she didn’t hear back 10 minutes later. It wasn’t until she finally realized it was useless sitting around waiting on an e-mail that may never come. She made a 2 minute phone call, confirmed the appointment and went on her merry way.

It’s easier to ignore an e-mail than it is spoken conversation. E-mail makes it very easy to “tune out” messages that you just don’t feel like dealing with at present. A fair portion of e-mail is completely ignored. If you really need to get a message across, and need to be sure that it is received, pay a visit or pick up the phone.

E-mail “conversations” often require days of back-and-forth whereas only a few spoken minutes would probably achieve at least as good a result. Despite its speed of delivery, you’re best off not attempting to use e-mail as a mean of real-time communication. If it can be covered via a phone conversation in a quick manner, don’t hold up the works by trying to carry out conversations requiring lots of back-and-forth interaction via e-mail. If you want to make sure that your conversation is documented and associated with a time, send out a quick e-mail summary of the conversation.

E-mail lacks the personal touch of spoken or face-to-face communication. Emoticons (i.e. “Smileys”) just aren’t de rigeur for business interaction (thank goodness). I’ve occasionally found my attempts to convey personality and perhaps a touch of humor are lost on the e-mail recipient. The drier the humor, the greater the chance that your one-liner will bomb. In a professional context, e-mail is great for communicating brief, informative messages but unless you try writing a full-length piece of e-mail literature (and even if you do), you likely won’t achieve the personal touch you want to convey.

Potentially higher security risk or unauthorized disclosure of private information. Quick and easy? Yes. Private? Not so much. There are certainly privacy concerns in using e-mail as a corporate communications medium. Confidential information can find its way into an email message with little thought or consideration of the risks on the part of the sender. Of course there are ways of mitigating security risks through technology and policy, and, to be fair, no means of communication is 100% secure. Just bear in mind when e-mailing that the advantage of having a “paper” trail can also be a disadvantage.

Trying to keep up e-mail can be a distraction. When you really need to get work done, it’s best to take communication offline.


About the Author

Jonathan Babcock is a management and IT consultant with expertise in business analysis, process optimization and solution delivery methodology. Practical Analyst is his outlet for sharing what he's learned, and for interacting with solution delivery professionals across the globe.

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  1. Also, email has grown faster than the infrastructure to support it. For what has become an essential part of business communication, any large company has email servers that are struggling to cope.

  2. Great post. An alternative to taking your communication off line would be to manage the time you spend on emails. My own experience with email showed that when I started checking my emails twice a day, within a set time frame, my productivity doubled. In our organisation we check emails between around 8 and 9 am and 4.30 and 5.30 pm. Business communication is also about resource management, eg. time.s

  3. Thanks for chiming in! New e-mail every 2 minutes can definitely be a distraction. Your set-time approach makes sense from a productivity perspective, I just doubt I'd have the will to enforce it on myself!

  4. True. Email inboxes have this unfortunate habit to fill up during the day. If I've got it open, it's very tempting to check every now and then what's come in. So, I noticed that if I log out completely of my email account, I don't get tempted. And at the end of the day I'll check what came in.

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