Lost In The E-Mail
Everyone is doing it. And that's the problem. The chatty, the cowardly and the conniving are clotting the electronic-mail revolution
By S.C. Gwynne and John F. Dickerson
(TIME, April 21) -- Charles Wang has been to E-mail hell, and returned to tell the tale. His journey there began innocently enough when, as chairman of Computer Associates International, a software company, he first heard how quickly his employees had embraced their new electronic-mail system. They were messaging one another like crazy. "I said, 'Wonderful,'" recalls Wang. "And I also said, 'Let's check into how people are using it.'"
But instead of a happily percolating E-mail culture, what had evolved was a behavioral nightmare. "It was a disaster," he says. "My managers were getting 200 to 300 E-mails a day each. People were so enamored of it they weren't talking to each other. They were hibernating, E-mailing people in the next cubicle. They were abusing it." In just a few years, Wang's high-tech communications system had gone quietly berserk.
To stop the insanity, Wang short-circuited the system, taking the astonishing step--considering what his $3.9 billion company does for a living--of banning all E-mails from 9:30 a.m. to 12 noon and from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. These hours are now rigidly observed as a sort of electronic quiet time. Says Wang: "It worked wonderfully. People are walking the corridors again talking to other people."
So much for the E-mail revolution, which is now enslaving the desk jockeys it was supposed to free, creating communications problems (of all things) so new that they cannot be found in the pages of any management textbook. E-mail has warped corporate cultures and created variant strains of bosses who make E-mail the terror weapon of choice to subdue underlings and subvert rivals. E-mail has wasted years of executive time and gigabytes of computer memory covering corporate backsides or looking for lost keys.
And the volume of traffic is still exploding. In 1994, for example, 776 billion E-mail messages moved through U.S.-based computer networks. This year that number is expected to more than triple, to 2.6 trillion. By the year 2000, the number will nearly triple again, to 6.6 trillion. Forty percent of the American workforce uses E-mail.
So why are people saying such bad things about these computer-borne text messages? Almost everyone agrees that E-mail is, first and foremost, a blessing. It is a convenient, highly democratic, informal medium for conveying messages that conforms well to human needs. E-mail is perhaps the ideal platform, for example, from which to run a global project. "It is one of the great innovations of the last 20 years," says Paul Argenti, a professor of management communications at Dartmouth's Tuck School. But Argenti and others also say it is a medium whose function is confusing, in part because the process is so easy and informal that people treat it as they do conversation. "It's a never-never land between talking on the phone and writing," says Argenti. But as informal as it may be, E-mail is writing and constitutes a permanent record, to the eternal delight of any number of plaintiff lawyers and special prosecutors. (Yes, your company reads your E-mail.) In that regard, E-mail is a bit like a conversation at the water cooler that can be instantly forwarded to 500 people. And because so much of human conversation is nonverbal, E-mail messages, especially critical or complex ones, can easily be misconstrued.
That is especially true if the originator the message is the new bane of the American corporate landscape: the "virtual manager." The virtual manager can be many things, most of them bad, but generally is a conflict-avoiding character who at once hides behind E-mail and uses it as an instrument of aggression, creating not only ill will but vast inefficiencies as well. "I cannot tell you how many people we've encountered hiding behind E-mail," says Emory Mulling, a consultant who is often brought in to help virtual managers change their ways. "Lots of them do not like conflict, so they issue reprimands over E-mail, and most do more harm than good." Says Andy Gilman, president of CommCore Consulting Group: "It's perfect for managers who would rather do anything other than walk down the hall."
Here, is the sort of message, written with little thought as to how it will be read, that illustrates both the one-way nature of E-mail (the recipient can't immediately defend himself) as well as the dangers inherent in offering criticism in an electronic message:
You MUST MUST make your report titles more descriptive. If I can't understand what the report is about, how will our clients? You are evaluated on your ability to communicate clearly as much as you are on any other part of your performances.
By the time this micromanaging zinger gets through the system, the sender has moved on to his next message. Meanwhile, the recipient stares at his screen as if a thunderbolt has zapped his office. Here's how he reads it: MUST MUST means "you are an idiot"; evaluated, "soon to be fired." And E-mail is a handy way to apply the blowtorch. "The bottom line is that if I send you an offensive E-mail, I feel great," says Mulling. "I've gotten something off my chest. But now you take on the anger. It's a way of passing anger." Another consequence is that the recipient, not knowing how to respond, may simply brood about it. "I've seen people eat their stomachs for a week because of one thoughtless E-mail," says Monte Gibbs, 28, who has worked for IBM and MCI and is executive director of product management and development at an Internet provider called Epoch Networks, in Irvine, California.
There's no body language in E-mail, perhaps its critical deficiency. As a result, says Diane Morse Houghton, president of Jaffe Associates, a marketing firm whose far-flung employees primarily communicate electronically, "E-mail leaves a lot of blank spaces in what we say, which the recipient tends to fill with the most negative interpretation." When he worked at MCI, Gibbs says, he and his colleagues categorized bosses and co-workers by their E-mail behavior. "There were the Crouchers, hunched over the medium, who live on E-mail moment to moment. Most of them don't participate. They're watchers, very passive. Then there were the Wirefires, people who live to respond on E-mail, actually prefer it to oral contact, and they constantly Spam [send multiple messages to] you. Then there were the Luddites, who don't embrace the medium at all and have a lot of passive aggression toward it. I've had all three types as bosses."
If E-mail plugs brains together, it suffers from linking the muddled with the magnificent, banding employees to a crescendoing chatter in which the number of messages increases as the quality of each declines--a world where there are 300 E-mails and nothing's on. Consider this sampling of American company E-mail:
"Sue, You are my sunshine." "The Thompsons just had an 8 lb. baby boy." "Bob, please disregard that last E-mail. I sent it to you by mistake." "2 Tickets to da Bulls game." "Ten ways faxing is like having sex." "Seize this Rare Marketing Opportunity." "I thought I would CC you on this project too."
Ah, those CCs. When Charles Wang lifted the lid on his system at Computer Associates, corporate paranoia gushed out in torrents as employees blanketed the company with CCs. No decision was too small, no change too minor not to notify everyone remotely involved. "It had turned into the biggest cover-your-ass thing you could imagine," says Wang. "People would send these things just so they could say, 'But I copied you on that.'" Now companies such as SmithKline Beecham are tightening the spigot by encouraging employees to limit the number of CCs they send. At Ernst & Young, systemwide messages (to everyone) are verboten.
In an era in which management gurus strive to push decision making down the chain, E-mail has made it easier for middle managers to shun responsibility by bucking decisions up the ladder. A worker who would shy from seeking an appointment with the boss to resolve an issue often bats out a "What do you think?" message on the most trivial of matters.
In some spots a counterrevolution has begun. "People became so overloaded they didn't use it," says Silicon Valley consultant Anita Rosen about the E-mail system at computer-software-maker Oracle, where she worked for years. "Out of 300 E-mails, 80% were CCs. So maybe what you actually need to know are 40 E-mails a day, or an hour's work." At the White House, E-mail is so overloaded that many senior staff members refuse to use it.
Sure, there are geeks like Bill Gates, who loves to respond to several hundred of the E-mails sent him daily, but Gibbs of Epoch Networks is less happy dipping into his system until 1 in the morning. "I have been at the company two months and received 6,500 E-mails," he sighs.
Perhaps Gates has spotted an opportunity here. Microsoft is hoping to cash in--again--by selling "intelligent agents" that will help sort all forms of digital clutter, including E-mail. Joe's a bore, so relegate his notes to the bottom of the list. Shoot to the top anything from the boss. Primitive versions, called bozo filters, are already available to help deflect some of the more predictable detritus by sender and topic.
To avoid sending the wrong message, consultants suggest four rules: Never discuss bad news, never criticize and never discuss personnel issues over E-mail. And if there's a chance what you say could be taken the wrong way, walk down the hall to discuss it in person or pick up the phone. "Think before you write," says Argenti. "The most important thing to know is what not to write." For American companies stretching to keep pace with the E-mail revolution, that advice may be the best message of all. CC it to everyone.
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