Is it me, or is the technology that was supposed to make communication better actually making it one big pain in the hard drive? And I’m not just bringing this up because my computer recently died without warning. I’m talking specifically about e-mail and how it has become the dominant form of communication between management and employees, employees and employees, and companies and customers. In fact, a recent study estimated the average office worker spends almost 50 minutes a day on e-mail. Many managers report spending hours.
Never before have we been able to send more messages to more people in a shorter amount of time. We’re living in the midst of an electronic information revolution. The real question is how does spending the workday communicating through e-mail affect employee and customer attitudes and actions? What’s the difference between information and knowledge, between knowing and caring? Given the pervasiveness and individual nature of the new electronic media—e-mail and the Web—how do we influence constructive behaviors, creative thinking, and lasting relationships?
Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium is the Message, gave us some insight. Although his communication theory emerged in the 1960s and 1970s around the then-new medium of television, his predictions and warnings still apply today. Computers, like all media, transform reality as we know it and change us mentally, physically, and culturally.
What the “medium is the message” was really saying is our perception of reality and what we think and feel depends on the structure of the information we receive.
McLuhan was concerned about electronic information and how it would transform reality. He warned us of its power to change our thought. He knew even a simple message, such as “I love you,” could generate totally different responses depending on whether it was delivered personally, by phone, on a billboard, in an e-mail, whatever.
The same is true of corporate messages. Just because we’re able to inform people quickly and easily using e-mail or the Web doesn’t mean we should. A good example is how two divisions of a large corporation handled the announcement that they were eliminating their annual cost-of-living adjustments. One sent e-mails and letters home detailing the facts as presented by the corporate office. The other prepared and then asked its managers to meet personally with employee groups to talk about why it was necessary, answer questions, and understand people’s concerns. Effects on culture were dramatic. Although neither group was happy, the impersonal announcement engendered anger and distrust. The personal announcement engendered respect for the leader’s knowledge and compassion and resulted in a smooth transition.
If McLuhan were here today, he would tell us to remember culture isn’t the product of information sent or received, but of the way we send and receive information. This “way” needs to generate understanding, create buy-in, and build enthusiasm for where we’re going and what we’re doing.
People need to understand why. Corporate culture is complex and fragile and needs a well-crafted communication strategy and plan. Media needs to be carefully selected, interrelated, and timed so people get needed information, but more importantly, delivered in a manner so they get it, believe in it, and respond in appropriate ways.
So before you clutter his or her e-mail with still another message, think about it. Is this really the best medium for your message? IBI