Submerged in email?

In 2008 the journal Times Higher Education reported on some research commissioned by HEFCE (the English higher education funding council) which suggested that there was an ‘overbearing email culture’ in universities and that this was undermining internal communications. The researchers questioned a number of university heads, as well as directors of communications and directors of human resources, and found that the heads (Vice-Chancellors) were very upbeat about their communication strategies, while the various directors were not. The directors were also apparently of the view that academics were worse communicators than administrators.

The view that university staff of all categories are overwhelmed by the volume of email and are in consequence not able to digest the information they contain may have a grain of truth in it. On the other hand, I remember the pre-email era well enough, and I don’t believe for a moment that communication strategies were more effective back then; whereas it is quite possible that we have information overload now, in past years we often had no real communication at all.

What this tells us, on the whole, is that a university (like most other institutions) needs a proper communications strategy. And it would be foolish to deny that, very often, we don’t get it right. I have myself, during my years as a university head, used email fairly regularly to communicate news or other issues, but I know that this is not always the best way; but it is tempting to use it because it is so easy. But more generally, email exchanges in universities often disregard some basic rules of email use; one department in North Carolina State University has issued some very sensible guidelines on email etiquette.

RGU has been working on its communications strategy, and I hope that we will find a way to allow information to be both accessible and easy to find, and to make it easy for colleagues to ask questions, find answers and make comments, in a safe setting. I must look more at how others have done this, particularly those institutions where staff are satisfied with the strategy. Pointers are welcome!

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6 Comments on “Submerged in email?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    In no way suggesting a college is more gossipy that any other institution of a similar size. But wouldn’t a question on the mail program along the lines of DO YOU REALLY NEED TO SEND THIS might slim things down.
    You cannot help but feel there’s an exponential aspect to e-mail inside a group.

  2. A colleague has been P/T lecturing recently. All important inf has been sent by email to students as opportunities came up. Not one student read them Only in class/lectures, when verbal and emphasis was given was the info transmitted.
    One up support for verbal and lecture use, though.

    Does this also suggest that paper handouts are still the preferred option?

  3. anna notaro Says:

    “I remember the pre-email era well enough, and I don’t believe for a moment that communication strategies were more effective back then; whereas it is quite possible that we have information overload now, in past years we often had no real communication at all.”

    I could not agree more with this, longing for a mythical (pre)e-communication age is a pointless exercise…but what is *real communication* anyway? Without getting too philosophical I would suggest that the concept of “communicative ecology” might be useful for anyone (university leader or otherwise) interested in developing a “communication strategy”
    Not surprisingly, the complexity of the concept is a reflection of the complexities of human communication…

    As for examples of how others are dealing with this see this excellent presentation:

    • cormac Says:

      I too suspect email makes for more, not less , efficient communicatiion. Its just a question of having a good way of separating the wheat from the chaff. However, it seems to me that the north carolina guidelines break the first rule of communication of any type_
      – don’t take 32 steps to make a point that could be made in 5!

      • anna notaro Says:

        Yep, submerged not only by emails but by 32 email guidelines!

      • Vincent Says:

        Back before e-mail a lot of the communication was of the CYA variety. The recipient wasn’t actually expected to ‘read’ the thing just file it. Yes, in theory you had hierarchical lines of responsibility but like with the local banks there was a degree of control at each terrace and it wasn’t until things went beyond that fife that a higher authority was called. Nowadays the local has little control. So it is in all organisations.
        I suspect the e-mail is improving the financial and man-hour output but we could’ve gotten to diminishing returns for the cost of the time to write the darn thing is greater than the value of the decision. And then add in the cost of reading it.

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