Incorporating Electronic Mail into the Business Communication Course

Article excerpt

E-mail is the primary communication vehicle for the information superhighway. Unfortunately, e-mail education is focusing on the hardware and software issues without regard for the requisite communication skills. To be effective electronic communicators, students need training in understanding the electronic organizational hierarchy and electronic communication volume and costs; selecting the appropriate media; and evaluating message permanence, security, ownership, and privacy. Including targeted exercises in the business communication class can enhance students' understanding of e-mail.

As students prepare for employment in a changing technological environment, they must be prepared to communicate effectively with the appropriate technology. Not only do they need to understand the hardware and software associated with using electronic communication but they also need to understand how the technology changes the communication process. Electronic communication allows instantaneous written communication from offices, homes, schools, and even most forms of transportation. Computers with faxes and modems make it possible to communicate globally and instantly with anyone who has similar technology.

Electronic mail (e-mail) has achieved the most widespread acceptance in all types of organizations because it is the primary method for communicating electronically. Organizations can use electronic mail for product development, training, giving and receiving work assignments, testing, personnel administration, problem solving, posting notices, marketing, and sending personal communication. Many organizations believe e-mail gives them a competitive advantage because it is fast, inexpensive, readily available, and not dependent on receiver availability.

As with other emerging and fast-growing technologies, organizations are struggling to get internal e-mail hardware and software installed and working properly and to connect internal systems with worldwide networks such as Internet. Although e-mail use is widespread, organizations have not yet dealt with all the other issues that e-mail brings into an organizational communication environment. Most employees are not taught how to be effective electronic communicators.

Business communication professors need to include electronic methods of business and office communication in university courses, along with the more traditional approaches. This article focuses on relevant e-mail topics and provides exercises that make students more aware of the organizational impact of e-mail.

E-mail Can Blur Organizational Hierarchies

Electronic communication can cause a major change in the organizational communication process because senders can circumvent traditional communication hierarchies. With traditional communication, an intermediary screens both phone and written messages. The receiver may get electronic messages directly since each employee is assigned an individual e-mail account. The lack of screening allows employees to communicate directly with someone several levels higher on the organizational chart. For example, a clerk in the marketing department might write the chief executive officer with a routine question about employee benefits. With more traditional forms of communication, office staff would intercept the phone call or written message and handle the inquiry or route it to the appropriate person. With e-mail, the employee has a better chance of the CEO reading the communication. However, the CEO may choose not to respond. This ability circumvents reporting lines. Some experts would argue that electronic mail allows a "virtual organizational hierarchy"; that is, the organizational hierarchy does not exist electronically. All users are equal.

Chief executive officers believe unbridled e-mail is too democratic because it does flatten hierarchies. "But what nobody wants to admit is that people in an organization have different amounts of power and status and that those who are better off want to restore a degree of isolation" (Zachary, 1994, p. …