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Good E-Mail Communication Requires Hard Work - Study -

August 2, 2001

Despite the adoption of e-mail and other modern communications methods, electronic communications do not always work well because they fail to convey human emotions, according to a new study from Temple University.

E-mail, Short Message Service (SMS) and other electronic forms of communicating all lack the nuances of emotion that characterise most other forms of communication, according to the study.

Ned Kock, director of the E-Collaboration Research Center at Temple's Fox School of Business and Management, conducted the study.

Kock said human beings have evolved over thousands of years of organized society into face-to-face communicators. As a result, people have grown accustomed to getting ideas across by more than simply speaking words to each other.

"When someone makes a joke during a face-to-face communication, that person can let the recipient know with a smile, a laugh or by body language that there was no intent to be hurtful or insulting," said Kock. "Those things are not present in e-communication."

The telephone does allow some contextual communication, such as a person's tone of voice, which puts it between face-to-face and e-mail, he said.

In the study, Kock had groups of people who worked at the same organization analyze a business process - such as how a company markets a particular product or how individuals in different departments share information - and try to improve it.

"We gave them a complex, language-intensive, group activity," Kock said.

Ten groups attempted to improve business processes by interacting face-to-face, while the other 10 groups used e-mail. The study defined the amount of "cognitive effort" required to convey an idea as the amount of time spent on this communication.

Kock said he was surprised at how much more time it took to communicate by e-mail as opposed to talking face-to-face.

"The cognitive effort was about 10 times higher. It might take someone face-to-face or on the telephone about 10 minutes to contribute a 600-word idea to a discussion. It will take over an hour to communicate the same idea electronically," he said.

The study did not conclude that all aspects of e-communication are negative. Despite the increase in effort, Kock said most of the participants perceived that they performed the task better by e-mail. He said the participants consistently cited two explanations for this feeling.

"People felt that the individual contributions by the group members were better constructed," he said. "They were better because they were forced to do so because of the limitations of the medium."

"The second explanation given was, because e-mail is asynchronous, the group could interact at different times," Kock added. "With electronic media, there is not as much of an interruption to a workday as there is with a group meeting. People could respond to an e-mail at a time that was most convenient for them. We found that more departments interacted in meetings because of this."

According to Kock, people compensated for the limitations of e-communication by working harder. "In some cases, there was an overcompensation, which leads to excessive cognitive effort," he said.

Kock said that although e-communication causes people to work harder, it might be better than face-to-face communication for some particular tasks. However, he said businesses need to be aware of the limitations e-mail has.

"There are many online companies providing services to their customers that ask customers to communicate by e-mail. Because the cognitive effort increases when communication is other than face-to-face, these customers might not want to move to e-mail communication, and might go to a company's competitor," he said.

Temple University is at .

By Michael Bartlett, Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company


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