The E-mail Miscommunication Crisis

BusinessWeek has yet another article on the problems with over-reliance on e-mail for communication. I’ve posted on this before (see here and here). The points made in the BW article aren’t new, but are worth repeating:

“’Business has undervalued the social dimension of communication,”says Diel Goleman….Recent research suggests that the perils of e-mail are greater than many assume. Justin Kruger, professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has found that as few as 50% of users grasp the tone or intent of e-mail and that most people vastly overestimate their ability to relay and comprehend messages accurately.


People e-mail each other when they are sitting mere feet from each other. They spend time writing convoluted descriptions when simply talking about the issue would more easily convey relevant information and allow for the brief back-and-forths that quickly illuminate issues and develop new ideas. One company cited in the BW article found that they solved problems quicker when they relied more on face-to-face communication of issues and less on e-mail. A CEO is cited who took action to reduce these e-mail related problems by implementing No E-mail Fridays at work. Interestingly, a Syracuse professor has found that e-mail is most likely to misinterpreted when it “comes from a boss.” I’m not sure why this is, but possibly because e-mails from higher-ups are scrutinized more severely than from others, with hidden meanings and hints at intentions excavated from every sentence.

The article mentions that this misuse of e-mail for communication is more prevalent in business among those in their 20s, presumably because they have grown up with e-mail and text messaging as primary methods of communication. Future young employees will no doubt reject conference rooms and prefer to hold meetings in Second Life or Warcraft: “Meeting tomorrow in Ironforge—don’t forget to bring your gryphon!”

What’s interesting is that the majority of complaints that people have about e-mail are either related to spam or to the overwhelming number of e-mails that they receive. People rarely acknowledge the miscommunication problems that arise from using e-mail rather than phone or face-to-face communication, possibly because one rarely knows when the tone or intent of their e-mails have been misread. Because of the difficulty in identifying and quantifying this problem, solutions to this are not as eagerly sought after as, say, solutions to spam. I have not doubt that businesses would benefit far greater from solutions to this looming e-mail miscommunication crisis than from spambots. The topic of the inadequacy of e-mail as a communication medium is starting to become more frequently discussed in the press and the blogosphere, and clearly there are business opportunities for companies to provide solutions to improving e-mail miscommunication—any Web 2.0 companies want to take a crack at it?