Since the turn of the 20th century4, the telephone has been used as a tool for business communications. Telephone use for business became commonplace and over time evolved to created demand for roles such as receptionists, switchboard operators, and ultimately telemarketers. For decades, the telephone was the fastest and least expensive way to reach customers and vendors. Then there came email.
There are some who say email was invented by Ray Tomlinson in 1972, although the roots of computer messaging go back much further. Like the Internet itself, email started as part of the ARPANET and was primarily used by the military, from which about 75 percent of ARPANET traffic came. As the ARPANET evolved into the Internet, email continued to be the “killer app” and still serves as the backbone of Internet communications.
Email offers a variety of advantages for business use. It allows you to communicate anytime, anywhere, helping workers stay on top of projects. This can promote a stream-of-consciousness management style, where managing a single project becomes a series of emails as new ideas emerge. However, email does ensure that most of the details are addressed.
Even though an email culture has come to dominate in most companies, it’s often more efficient to pick up the phone.
One of the big advantages of email is that it leaves a documented trail. Every email generated is recorded, so you can refer back to it, including seeing who had the last action item and dropped the ball. And email threads can be shared among various coworkers and managers in order to make sure everyone is up to date (and to cover your own backside).
Where email truly fails is in its lack of immediacy and its negative impact on productivity. Although a single phone call could likely be used to resolve a business issue, today we generate email instead. A single query can become a back-and-forth exchange that can delay resolution by hours, days, weeks, or even months. And the more email is generated, the more email responses are required, and ultimately we end up in an endless infinite abyss of email messages.
It’s no wonder that workers feel a sense of accomplishment when they get through their email inbox, even if nothing is actually resolved.
Even though an email culture has come to dominate in most companies, it’s often more efficient to pick up the phone. A phone call has more urgency and can yield an immediate response, but email has become more comfortable for workers, because it provides a written record and eliminates the need to actually converse with another human being, not really an ideal way to promote team collaboration.