Email [curse | blessing] pick one

Yesterday’s issue of The New York Times Book Review reviews a new book called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. The review was written by Dave Barry, and it sounds pretty much like everything Dave Barry has ever written, except that he doesn’t make any potty jokes.

Fortunately, the online version of the review has a link to the first chapter of the book. Here’s an excerpt that pretty much sums up the book’s purpose:

So what is it about email? Why do we send so many electronic messages that we never should have written? Why do things spin out of control so quickly? Why don’t people remember that email leaves an indelible electronic record? Why do we forget to compose our messages carefully so that people will know what we want without having to guess? We wrote this book to figure out why email has such a tendency to go awry — and to learn for ourselves how to email not just adequately but also well. Our Holy Grail: email that is so effective that it cuts down on email.

Those are good questions, and I think maybe I need this book. Some weeks, I spend two hours or more a day reading and writing email. Some days (today!) I find myself spending forty minutes carefully writing and rewriting an email message, when a five-minute phone call would have been more effective. Email is frustrating. Email is extremely useful. Somehow, I need to learn to make better use of email.

So I’m going to start a short series of posts on using email more effectively in churches and other small non-profits. Not that I know how to use email more effectively than you do — but if I put down some preliminary ideas, and you respond with better ideas in the comments, we might actually make some progress towards that Holy Grail — email so effective it cuts down on email.

First installment: Meetings via email

For those of us who sit on boards and committees, it is very tempting to save time by using email to conduct business outside of regular meeting times. In my experience, conducting board or committee business via email is ineffective when either (a) it takes longer to conduct the business via email, (b) the business is too complex to conduct via email, or (c) the business item is not presented well initially. Let’s look at these problems one at a time:

(a) It takes longer to conduct the business via email. Emotionally-loaded business items never translate well to email — email discussions have this uncanny ability to go from civil discussion to outright war in less than five seconds — meaning it’s much more efficient to conduct emotionally-loaded business face-to-face. Business items where not all members of the board or committee have the same depth of knowledge never work well via email — the knowledgeable people are constantly re-explaining to the others what’s going on — so here again, face-to-face is better.

(b) The business is too complex to conduct via email. Complex business items do not seem to translate well to email — people ask the same questions over and over again, or the original details get forgotten as the email discussion drags on and on — so it seems more efficient to conduct complex business face-to-face.

(c) The business item is not presented well initially. If you present a business item badly in a face-to-face meeting, you know instantly from the blank looks on people’s faces. Since you don’t get that kind of feedback with email responses, you can find yourself deeply involved in an email discussion only to realize that people have very different understandings of what’s being discussed — in which case, you’re probably better off cutting your losses and postponing the business item until your next face-to-face meeting.

So what kind of committee or board business does work well via email? Well, setting an agenda for a face-to-face meeting works well via email — little emotion involved, no depth of knowledge required, it’s a simple task. In another example, here at First Unitarian in New Bedford the Board of Trustees has to approve all building rental requests, and mostly these routine votes are done via email (in rare instances where a building rental proves contentious, the vote is postponed to a face-to-face meeting). Related to this, routine votes and approvals can often be effectively handled via email. Finally, email is very useful to distribute staff reports or subcommittee reports prior to a face-to-face meeting.

There must be other examples where committee or board business is conducted effectively via email — what examples do you have from your own experience? Has your committee or board come up with any magic techniques for carying out effective business via email?

Next installment: Email [curse | blessing], part two

3 thoughts on “Email [curse | blessing] pick one

  1. UU Jester

    I just spent the last month conducting meetings with the ordination committee completely by email. It worked remarkably well. Here is why I think it worked.
    1) We had the first meeting face to face. At that meeting tasks were assigned to everyone.
    2) Emails were to everyone or to the committee chair.
    3) Everyone on the committee was email savvy– checking their email daily at the minimum.
    4) We had a set goal to accomplish and a short deadline by which to accomplish it.

    That might be a good start.

  2. Jean

    This is not in answer to your question, but maybe it is. We do a lot of routine discussions, and some not so routine, about academic matters via our listserv. Invariably (cuz we’re academics) the discussions are more dissertations that stake out a particular theoretical ground, rather than commentary which moves the discussion forward. And even worse, someone will send one of these dissertations out over the listserv and then the next thing you know the sender will show up at your door with the inevitable question: “Did you get my email?”

  3. Anna Belle

    When I read “Roberts Rules” a number of years ago (5?) it actually had a little advice on email. Back then it advised against using email for votes. I was surprised it had anything at all. I just checked, and it appears that’s still the official edition (2000), so it probably can’t help with your query much beyond that. That little tidbit, however, has proved helpful on any number of times.

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