Too much communication: e-mail

What’s one big difference between education and business? Communication, especially electronic communication. Businesses have too much of it, many if not most educational organizations are a decade behind that curve, not yet having enough.

e-mail gif from South Alabama University

Free content at the Wall Street Journal includes this column by Sue Shellenbarger in Work and Family, “A day without e-mail is like . . .” She tells the story of U.S. Cellular’s chief operating officer banning e-mail on Fridays to improve work. He was striving for more face-to-face communication among employees, and he got it.

My first experience with e-mail was at the U.S. Department of Education — good heavens! — two decades ago. We were experimenting with electronic communication with the old, slow systems that linked dumb terminals through telephone connections (1200 BAUD, anyone?). Our formerly technophobic boss, Checker Finn, was at home recuperating from some physical ailment, and we made the delightful mistake of showing him he could send and receive messages by computer. Within a few weeks it took at least an hour a day to keep up with the messages. But our operations were split, with administration across town at the main ED building, and most of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) closer to the Capitol, at New Jersey Avenue, NE. Basic communications that had taken three days by inside mail, courier, and the limousine between the two buildings, were shortened to exchanges over 15 or 20 minutes. Computer messaging was a huge boost to productivity on most things. E-mail, such as it was, had to be printed out to be read. Saving it was a manual filing process.

When I arrived at American Airlines, it was among the most computerized organizations in the world, with the SABRE reservations and business management systems available at every gate, every ramp, every office. Within four years the organization was close to a computer at every workstation — but linkages were almost exclusively internal. The internet was not yet developed to the point that it could substitute for the massive hard-wire linkages American Airlines required to do business, which provided the side-effect of some messaging between employees.

Airlines can be peculiar places for business. With flying so inexpensive to the organization, face-to-face meetings were more important than electronic communication. It was not until after September 11 and the forced reduction in air travel that most organizations learned they could do without face-to-face, much to the detriment of American and other airlines. At American we scheduled world-wide meetings, with time set aside simply to meet with other people from distant locations with whom we usually communicated by telephone and brief electronic missives. Computers provided dramatic improvements in work efficiencies, especially in the creation of spreadsheets for quantitative analysis. E-mail was still in the future.

The travel cost reduction consulting practice at Ernst & Young worked to find metrics to tell when face-to-face meetings were necessary, and when telephone and other communication without moving a body would work. We never achieved reducing that to a good equation, but we discovered that it existed. In one organization, we discovered that the creation of teleconferencing actually increased corporate travel. When teleconferenced meetings revealed certain problems, some managers literally could not wait to resolve them. A short trip for a quick resolution of a problem with in-person communication often was the best path for a manager.

Primetheus, PrimeCo's mascot

E-mail was part of the organizational oil that make PrimeCo PCS a slickly functioning, high-performance organization in the early days of digital cellular buildouts. No substitute for well-run meetings that coordinated land acquisition, legal, construction and engineering teams, e-mail was one more way by which communication could be speeded. PrimeCo, with it’s little pink alien mascot, could be a great place to work. The organization was very flat, because it was small. The combination of telephone, travel, e-mail and express document delivery allowed land acquisition and construction schedules that should have been the envy of other businesses, had anyone bothered to study the systems. E-mail was internal, mostly, and so limited to company business. Still, more than a hundred messages a day was not uncommon for some managers. PrimeCo was broken up by the divorce of its partner parents, then absorbed into a new partnership doing business as Verizon Wireless (separate from Verizon Communication); while e-mail at VzW quickly became what most of us now recognize, much of the benefit of small size, speedy communication and fast action at PrimeCo was lost. Primetheus, acquired by US Cellular

Teachers don’t face isolation by distance so much. The difficulty of communication, especially in schools, is a time allocation issue more than anything else. Teachers don’t have time to meet with their colleagues and support groups when classes are in session — the short breaks between classes become furious periods of activity to prepare for the next class, take care of bodily functions (ha!), and conduct communication as possible with who is available (usually a student with a problem that cannot be resolved in a short time). Consequently, e-mail can be ideal for speeding actions. In a high school, e-mail during or between classes can clear up misunderstandings and resolve problems that would otherwise languish for lack of any communication. Teachers don’t have the privilege of strolling down to the front office when necessary; when teachers do have time for office visits, other people are unavailable for meetings.

The time issue is grossly under recognized. In most white-collar jobs, a desk phone and the ability to use it to make appointments with physicians, financial planners, and spouses, is part of the business. In schools, there is simply no time for such communication for teachers, especially if there is any back-and-forth exchange necessary. Teachers can’t call back during class (though some administrators seem not to understand that teachers teach and don’t just sit at the desk awaiting calls).

So, in too many schools e-mail misses its potential. In one district where teachers and students all have laptop computers, some principals time e-mails, and dock teachers for messages sent during what should be “class time.” In other schools, administrators are famous for ignoring e-mail. In other schools, teachers routinely ignore e-mail, since most of it is easily ignorable. In no school I’ve ever seen is e-mail to school security during class time a possibility; important support functions are not integrated into the business of teaching in real time, at elementary and secondary levels. (Some of this does not apply to colleges and universities, a topic for a different time.)

Shellenbarger’s column in WSJ describes a world different from a teacher’s:

A growing number of employers, including U.S. Cellular, Deloitte & Touche and Intel, are imposing or trying out “no email” Fridays or weekends. While the bans typically allow emailing clients and customers or responding to urgent matters, the normal flow of routine internal email is halted. Violators are hit with token fines, or just called out by the boss.

The limits aim to encourage more face-to-face and phone contact with customers and co-workers, raise productivity or just give employees a reprieve from the ever-rising email tide. Emails sent by individual corporate users are projected to increase 27% this year, to an average of 47 a day, up from 37 in 2006, says Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif., research and consulting firm. And one-third of users feel stressed by heavy email volume, according to a 2007 study of 177 people by the University of Glasgow and Paisley University in Scotland. Many check email as often as 30 to 40 times an hour, the study showed.

Managers complain that rather than confronting problems, employees use email to avoid them by passing issues back and forth in long message strings, like a hot potato. Email reduces face-to-face contact among co-workers and clients; terse, poorly phrased messages further strain those relationships. And it is spilling into weekends, chaining employees to computers when they should be relaxing.

Maybe education is leading the pack, again. No e-mail Fridays and weekends? How about no e-mail weeks, always? Some schools are already there.

Other notes:i

3 Responses to Too much communication: e-mail

  1. knowledge broker says:

    Such a useful and insightful blog�wow !!!!


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    I think speed can be good. And accuracy. And records.

    For example, I get a kid who comes into class late, claiming with a sticky note that a coach kept him for an extra drill. It’s plausible. But it’s third block — do we have any events being coached second block? The name is difficult to read, so I ask the kid which coach, and he names someone. I send that coach an e-mail asking about the event.

    Now, without e-mail, this requires that I write down the specifics, get the note down to the faculty mail-room and drop it in the coach’s box. With luck, he picks it up tomorrow and reads it. Without luck, his aide sixth hour grabs it and loses it in the coffee room. With luck he responds with another note to me that goes into my box, and I get it the third day — but more likely the fourth day. By this time the kid’s been late twice more, claiming the same coach, but without a note “because he didn’t have any paper on him.”

    In the paper, much delayed, version, the coach may or may note recall the incident at all. If he doesn’t recall, he falsely responds the kid is lying, and five days after the event I send a note to the attendance officer of the discrepancy. The kid is hauled out of class, falsely accused, and he’s now certain that even his friend the coach is out to get him, another reason he should drop out at the earliest allowable moment.

    In the electronic version, the coach gets it within three hours, and zips a response to me, which I can then pass on to anyone in need of the note. Maybe we have a traffic pileup in one of the halls that needs some thought to get several kids to class on time. Maybe the kid’s lying and we need to respond quickly (in the electronic version, I can forward the e-mail to his mother this afternoon, and she can ask him about it tonight at dinner). Electronically, I’ve got a copy and that’s good any way this cookie crumbles.

    I agree content is king. Time is education, though, and I’d love to be able to put speed on some messages, sometimes.

    Have you seen the Taylor Mali piece? I love the part where he calls Mom at dinner to brag about the kid’s sticking up for another kid. It’s the sort of thing we should do more often, and more timely. In one school, I caught a usually-considered-a-deadbeat kid doing just that. To remind myself to call his home, I sent an e-mail to myself, and then just because I could, I copied four other teachers who had that kid in their class. Two of them wrote back saying how pleased they were to have the news, and both of them mentioned it to him that day. The next day I had a kid saying he didn’t think I even knew who he was, and thanking me for telling “the world” he’d done something right for a change (his phrase, “the world).

    In print, I’d never have bothered to do that — I’d either have to hand write the notes or print them out or photocopy them and place them in the teachers’ mailboxes. Electronically, we made a good stride toward turning a kid around academically.


  3. I’m not sure more sophisticated approaches to electronic media are necessarily an answer to solving the problems of communication in modern education. Though there’s much potential in some new horizons, like Web CT and Moodle, in the end educational success should still be founded on the content rather than the medium.


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