Missing the forest for the (electronic) trees.


I've written many times before (as have many others) about the perils of constant electronic connection in the workplace. Now legendary professor Henry Mintzberg has published an interesting take on this problem, in the Winter issue of Strategy+Business. Leaving aside the issue of multitasking, Mintzberg points out that information-poor media like email and text messages take away the nuance and subtleties that can only be conveyed in face-to-face conversation. Mintzberg argues that

Managers who believe that they can learn about their department through email — rarely walking down the hall, let alone getting on an airplane — may find themselves in trouble . . . By giving managers the illusion of control, the rapid flow of information through new technologies threatens to rob them of real control. As demands pile up, managing can become more frenetic and superficial.

Recently I've seen companies with processes that aren't functioning particularly well. The problem, however, isn't necessarily that the process is poorly designed or broken. Rather, the breakdowns occur during handoffs that are communicated exclusively through email or some other electronic medium. Sometimes, one party lacks perfect understanding of the process. Another time, a simple request via email is interpreted as a peremptory demand, triggering intransigence or foot-dragging. Both situations cause a process to bog down, with finger pointing and blame the ultimate result.

The demands on your time -- and your managers' time -- are formidable. Email is a necessary and valuable communications tool. But it isn't, and shouldn't be, the only tool in your armamentarium. Otherwise, as Mintzberg says, "you'll gather the facts, but you may miss the meaning."

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