Managing By Messaging
By Mark Gibbs
[Originally appeared in NETWORK WORLD, September 14, 1998.
Copyright (c) Network World, 1998; article reproduced here with
If your favorite way to communicate with employees is via e-mail, think
about the effectiveness of your message.
Winn Schwartau runs two security firms, yet he wouldn't recognize most of
his employees if he ran into them on the street. That's because practically
all of his business activity is managed by e-mail.
"We have a couple of employees I have never met or spoken to. I don't know
their age, color, religion or anything," says Schwartau, the CEO of
Interpact and The Security Experts. "They work out great."
He only meets with his assistant about once per week and says they can go
for days without speaking to each other. And Schwartau can count on one
hand the number of times he's seen his Webmaster in person or spoken to him
on the phone.
The way he sees it, face-to-face or telephone communication isn't always
necessary to get the job done. "It's all about professionalism, the right
people and a good healthy dose of techno-independence," says Schwartau, who
is also a Network World columnist.
Schwartau is riding the leading edge of management practice. He's
successfully running a virtual corporation driven by information technology
and electronic communications. And he's relying on one of the most powerful
management tools of the computer age: e-mail.
However, the idea of management by e-mail often has negative connotations.
Some managers who communicate solely via e-mail may inadvertently be
sending the message that they don't care if the message gets through to the
Overreliance on e-mail as a communications channel is increasingly common.
Managers often feel they're in the middle of an organization, pressured by
senior executives to produce and overwhelmed by the job of dealing with
Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that many managers dive
behind their computers and issue edicts that manage the process rather than
Of course, it's not only managers who manage by e-mail. Staff, in turn,
find they can manage their managers by confining their interaction to
e-mail as much as possible. For both groups, e-mail can represent a means
of escape from face-to-face communication.
While e-mail may indeed smooth the load to some degree, it also carries a
big potential for misunderstanding. The problem, however, is not e-mail but
"Employees who cannot communicate, whether orally or in writing, are less
effective. This has little to do with e-mail," says John Gennaro, director
of managed data services at Global One in Reston, Va.
In general, managers do little to improve the communication skills of their
staffers, says Gennaro. The more proactive organizations teach their
employees how to answer the telephone to convey a polished corporate image.
But few companies train workers to improve their business writing or
suggest guidelines for e-mail correspondence.
Even so, there are certain situations where bad e-mail may be more
effective than the best face-to-face or telephone contact. For example,
when you're communicating with native speakers of another language, "it's
sometimes easier to understand a grammatically incorrect e-mail than it is
to work through an accent over the phone," says Gennaro.
Thanks to increased telecommuting, virtual organizations and the need for
greater mobility in business, managing by e-mail is here to stay. The key
to making it work is knowing who you're communicating with and messaging
about the right things.
1. Establishing goals and providing feedback is even more critical when you
don't talk to employees on a regular basis.
2. Avoid ambiguity. The lack of personal contact in e-mail amplifies
ambiguity. Read your e-mail before sending it. Is there anything that can
possibly be misconstrued? If so, reword it.
3. Ensure that everyone knows what matters. Assemble and summarize message
threads, and flag the top priorities for your team.
4. Keep your eye on the ball. Status reports sent via e-mail are no
substitute for checking things out for yourself.
5. Know your employees. Spend time working closely with staff before
relying on management by e-mail.
6. Establish a hierarchy of communication tools depending on urgency, such
as regular mail to fax to e-mail to voice mail to real-time voice.
7. Agree on routine. Set expectations for how often workers should check
their e-mail and voice mail so everyone is on the same page.
8. Know your lowest common denominator. File transfers with attached video
clips, multimedia files, and other bells and whistles can create far more
aggravation than they are worth, particularly to dial-up users. Drop back
to the "stone age" of pure text messages whenever possible.
9. Publicly recognize employees for a job well done by sending a message to
the whole team.
10. Don't discipline by e-mail. The medium is too impersonal and too easily
misinterpreted to carry a rebuke or criticism.
["Management Strategies" by Mark Gibbs, with Chuck Papageorgiou, managing
partner of ideasphere, and Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates.]
Mark Gibbs is a writer, contributing editor and columnist at NETWORK WORLD,
and a consultant who spends far too much time reading e-mail. Send him some
more and visit his site .