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June 25, 2012 / Mervyn Dinnen

E-mail Killed the Chat Show Star

too-much-email

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street journal recently – wireless carriers are getting creative in the way they charge customers for voice calls. They need to as the average length of a person to person phone call has almost halved in 6 years from 3.03 minutes to 1.78 minutes.

It reminded me of this op-ed from New York Times about 15 months ago on how people don’t talk on the phone much anymore. I’d like to think I started the trend with ‘The End of the Phone’ but it’s unlikely!

It may seem like the end of conversation, which funnily enough was at odds with a subject occupying some UK HR bloggers recently. Gareth Jones thinks that conversation is the new currency whereas Rob Jones points out that it’s the old currency, it’s been the lifeblood of organisations since well before the days of Don Draper. We’re just going back to being human, as Doug Shaw puts it.

All of which took me back to my very first job in a 150 person accountancy firm. This wasn’t the days of Mad Men (no jokes) but still if you wanted to speak to a colleague you either picked up the phone and dialled their internal extension or walked over to their desk. If a partner wanted to see you they phoned you and told you to come and see them with a specific file. Most days any number from 5 to 50 may drop by the pub for a lunchtime glass of shandy or sandwich, whilst small groups from different departments would gather in nearby cafés. A lunch break was just that! A break to get out the office and usually chat.

People were talking about work, football, the new employee on reception, whatever…they talked. Partners and managers were visible at every drink-up, birthday lunch or team night out. They would talk to employees in the pub, not stand around in small groups on their own. They were interested in what was going on in your life away from work as well as how you were finding life in the office. And if they felt that you would benefit from a quiet word about performance they usually delivered in that way – no formal meetings or notes, just a friendly word to set you straight.

Compare and contrast with today – how would all that communication be done? By e-mail! Would anyone phone you and ask to you to pop up to review a file? No, they’d put a meeting in your diary. (Needless to say no-one below manager level ever needed a diary with my first employer!) If someone has a question do they ask you? No they e-mail – probably CCing in a few more, creating a pass the parcel thread in which when the music stops someone has to dig out the information.

Does anyone ever talk anymore? The problem with e-mail is its lack of personality. E-mail doesn’t do context, tone and inference, or sarcasm or irony. It’s a monotone way of transferring information, not a way to have a conversation.

When I was putting together slides for a presentation at last week’s CIPD Recruitment Exhibition it became clear to me, whilst charting the evolution of business communication, that the phone was a conversation enabler whilst fax and e-mail were conversation stoppers.

I recently posted the slides from last year’s IBM Social Jam – this quote is particularly relevant…

‘Information can get lost and conversations can taper off when e-mail is the primary form of communication. “I think leaders have a responsibility, where it makes sense, to move people out of email,” a participant wrote. “I heard someone once say that ‘email is where information goes to die’ implying that we lose something by forcing knowledge into that channel

When someone rings you and you’re busy you say ‘Sorry, I can’t talk’. But when you receive an e-mail you do you ever e-mail back ‘Sorry but I’m too busy to process this information. I’ll e-mail you back when I get a chance’? It’s a lot ruder and more confrontational than the ‘sorry I’m really busy at the moment’ on the phone.

As Sarah Green, Associate Editor Harvard Business says on her recent blog The Responsiveness Trap

“And so all of us will have to decide: am I going to be “responsive,” rapidly reacting to every email, with my thumbs, choosing to make more work for other people and giving myself the attention span of a goldfish? Or am I going to answer email in my own time, when I can actually provide a thoughtful reply, and either spend my life apologizing or decide it’s okay if people think I’m an arrogant so-and-so?”

So the conversation has always been there, but recently we’ve found a way to block it and push it away. Internal business communication has been more about information, task assignation and crowdsourcing than talking.

Gareth believes that social technologies will help bring it back. I’m not so sure. It’s there, and it bubbles away, but requires more than technology to lift the blocks – it will take a mind-set change too.

So does e-mail do it for you? Is it a blocker or an efficiency driver? Or am I just one of Neil Morrison’s Digital Hippies?

Let me know…

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Julia Briggs / Jun 25 2012 12:34 PM

    Hmm. Conversation will always happen – in fact I think we could even be talking more. Look at the rise of networking as an art form. And all that new connecting via Linked in often results in a meeting or at least a phone call, if not as a consequence of either.

    All email has done (if used properly) is made us ‘more efficient’ – it is only used for transactional stuff surely? And to have a record has proven very useful on many an occasion.

    What HAS happened though is the rise in work rates so trips to the pub are rare. Perhaps that’s the issue, not the lack of willingness to converse?

  2. Gareth Jones / Jun 25 2012 9:38 PM

    Exactly – thats why conversation is the new currency! 😉 It isnt new, just potentially becoming more powerful. I agree with Julia, social technologies, whilst never the central point, have enabled more conversation – My experience alone I have met and conversed with exponentially more people through the use of social technology than before. It has facilitated more networking and given people, on a wider basis, more connection and perhaps validation/solidarity. It has certainly given customers and more recently, employees a voice, which is the most important and relevant point I think. And it cannot be compared to email – its totally different. But thats a whole new post. 😉

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