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May 2016

Email: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Greetings once again. For the first time in five or six years, I missed a month, namely April. I mean the newsletter issue, not the month itself. I’m blaming travel -- a trip to DC to teach business writing and grammar at the Energy Department, and a week at the U.S. Army’s European headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany. Then I spent the first week of this month back at Energy, running seminars on briefing and presentation skills and email usage and etiquette.

Why am I telling you this? Because, not for the first time, I learned as much from class participants as they picked up from me. The Army folks, mostly senior NCOs and civilians who work for the service's Inspector General, gave me the gratifying impression that our military is in competent, professional hands compared to the '70s, when I served in Germany and Vietnam. Back then, the chief of staff actually called the service he led a "hollow army" as it suffered through a low point in public esteem.

More to the point for this issue of the newsletter, I was surprised to find at Energy some real angst about the proliferation of email. Having avoided office work by being self-employed the past 17 years, I always assumed that email had evolved into a form of corporate communication that streamlined workplace interaction. To be sure, I included email in grammar and composition exercises, with a nod to proper "tone," in my writing courses, but rarely came across the much larger issue of email "culture." So my recent time at the Energy Department brought me up short, and now I wonder if these challenges are endemic to all organizations -- private and nonprofit as well as the public sector.

Here’s what I’m talking about, summarizing comments from participants in the email class:

  • "Email here is very political. Who do you copy on an email? Do you do 'reply all?'"
  • "Who needs to know? Who should be excluded, and what happens if they find out they've been excluded when it's forwarded?"
  • "Email is convenient, but if there’s too much lag time going back and forth, it's not productive."
  • "Who gets BCC in the addressee box?"

This comment, from a security expert, was typical: "Eighty-five percent of my communications are email. I’m trying to bring it down to 50 percent. I’ve just got too many emails, maybe 100 to 150 a day, clogging my inbox."

But it’s worse than just congestion. Email is actually causing a problem with management. The security expert again: "If someone up the ladder asks me by email, for instance, if he can carry a classified document to a certain place, I’m expected to CC my boss on the answer, which adds to the clutter. Before email that wouldn’t have happened because it would have been inconvenient to 'copy' my boss when I’m answering the question in person or on the phone."

Her solution is to go back to pre-email practice whenever possible. Another class participant, a senior official in the department’s cyber security unit, follows up emails with a phone call. He also monitors emails he sends with an eye to stopping them after three "back and forths, then I pick up the phone. Otherwise, there’s too much risk of expanding addressees and forwarding it" to parties unknown.

Yet another reason to limit the use of email makes perfect sense for the public servant if not for the public itself. "There’s a lot of CYA going on," said one class participant. "Because of the Freedom of Information Act and the fact that all emails are archived, I use the phone whenever possible." Being a former journalist who valued FOIA as a tool to ferret information out of the bureaucracy, I’m sorry to hear that, but I see his point.

"The secret of effective email," he said, "is knowing when to stop it."

One last point, and this one has a much broader and long-term effect with ominous repercussions. It goes beyond email itself to the fact that information is so easy to access on so many levels. Harking back to the security expert above, a retired Air Force officer who is now a facilities engineer at Energy said, "There’s too much information going up the ladder because it’s so easy to do it. That leaves middle managers just filtering information that goes to their bosses, leaving little decision-making. We must allow people to make mistakes, and learn from them."

Enjoy spring.