Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Means of communication

Which is the more efficient means of communication: face-to-face discussion, or email?

Obviously the only right answer is "it depends on what you're trying to communicate", but once we get past that, the discussion always focuses on a few key points. The first is the value of non-verbal communication, all the things in tone of voice and expressions. The second is the interactivity -- you can get a response back to something immediately, respond to it immediately, etc.

Those are important things. They matter. But everyone tends to stop there, and they're barely the tip of the iceberg. One could have a very interesting discussion about comparing the merits of those factors to the big merits of the asynchronous format, merits which everyone seems to dismiss, even though they're also big and important.

Like the ability to compose your thoughts, reorder them, check them over, and make sure they make sense, before you click Send. All those big advantages mentioned earlier can, I think, be weighed up against that one, and I think you'd have to conclude that it's a fair fight, one that could tip either way depending on the specifics of the situation and the people.

Yet no one ever really considers that one; it barely merits a mention, and usually not even that. Because we had face-to-face before we had email, and it's easy to notice what we lose, and harder to realize the value of what we gained. But that chance to put your thoughts in order is huge. Admittedly, more so for people who have fair or good writing skills than for those who aren't good at it; but even those who aren't good at it can still benefit a great deal from this if they tried.

But all this is so much pretty noise. When it comes down to it, all the reasons anyone cites are of trivial consequence, compared to the one, and only one, reason why meetings are more productive than emails. Every other factor tends to cancel out with opposed factors, or vary too much depending on situations. Time and again, meetings are more efficient for one reason no one wants to admit or mention.

When you get someone to a meeting, they actually listen. They pay attention to what you're saying, and more importantly, to what they're saying in return. They aren't doing ten other things. They aren't skimming.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. I don't always pay attention in meetings! Nor do the people I meet with. Well, that's true, but to a much smaller extent than you might realize. And in very small meetings, like two or three people talking face to face, it's almost nil. The important point is to compare it to emails. The problem with emails is not anything about the emails; it's that people skim them, and don't take them seriously, don't invest any time or effort in reading or writing them.

It's really about time investment. If people invested half the amount of time a meeting would take in just reading, really reading, the email, and then really thinking about their response, the same work would get done. And I don't mean the word "half" as an exaggeration for effect. When you think about the amount of overhead involved in trying to schedule meetings, trying to free up a large continuous block of time, matching schedules, travel, and the unproductive chatter that meetings always carry along with the actual talking about the thing the meeting is about,the time factor can really be that big.

But people will invest a tenth as much time in the emails as they would in a face-to-face, and then they complain that email doesn't work as well. It's self-fulfilling. Of course you're not going to put a lot of time and effort into it if it doesn't work... but of course it won't work if you won't put any time and effort into it.

Now, I'm expecting to be argued against, and I would absolutely welcome a real discussion about it, even if I can be proven wrong. But I think most people's reaction will be dismissive -- they won't address the actual point. And they can't, because hardly anyone has actually put this to the test. Everyone remembers the emails that didn't work, but how many people have enough experience with the few people who actually take them seriously enough to prove the point? The conclusion is invariably assumed and then used to justify itself.

But next time someone insists on printing out the email and coming over to ask you what the email said, just imagine how much of their time, not to mention yours, would have been saved if they had just read it. Multiply that over the three or four email exchanges it would have taken to settle something that ends up requiring a 45-minute meeting (plus 30 minutes of setting up the meeting), and see how the math works.

If you assume the quality of the emails will be as bad as the ones you currently get (and probably send), you'll come to the same conclusion everyone else does. But if you assume the quality of the emails is what you could have done if you brought as much attention and focus as the meeting, by its nature, drew out of you, I think you might come to a different conclusion. Enough, at least, to say it's not a foregone conclusion; enough where the place we started, that it could go either way depending on the kind of communication and the kind of people. Enough, perhaps, that we could finally have the discussion.

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