Training for E-Mail

By Sussman, Lyle; Golden, Peggy et al. | Training & Development, March 1991 | Go to article overview

Training for E-Mail


Sussman, Lyle, Golden, Peggy, Beauclair, Renee, Training & Development


Training for E-Mail

Has your company invested in a new electronic mail system? If employees don't get the right training in how to use it, the result could be mixed messages.

How soon can you get our people up to speed on the new electronic mail system?" That's a question trainers are having to answer with increasing frequency.

In response, many trainers are likely to take the familiar road. Because E-mail is computer-based, they tend to create programs similar to the kind used for computer training. They establish training goals and develop corresponding materials that have three objectives: overcoming resistance, learning keyboard skills, and improving technical proficiency.

While those objectives are important, there's a subtle and potentially more significant need in training for electronic communication. E-mail training must address the psychological as well as the technological aspects of the medium.

Specifically, trainers must answer two questions: How does a computer alter the communication process? What are the implications for training?

Empirical evidence

A study of the E-mail system at a southeastern university provides a list of critical incidents that illustrate the effects of E-mail on the communication process. The study sample consisted of full-time faculty and administrators who were using PROFS (IBM's Professional Office System) for the first time.

Each of the participants was asked to respond to the following request for an example of a critical incident:

"Describe an actual incident involving an extremely negative (personal or organizational) experience you've had with electronic communication in your organization. Describe the incident in sufficient detail so that someone unfamiliar with the incident would know what happened and why you concluded it was a negative experience. You need not use names in your description."

Negative experiences were requested because they are more likely to be remembered than positive ones. It was also expected that they would provide direct insight into E-mail's effects. Because negative experiences violate the norms, assumptions, and expectations that we bring to the communication process, they serve to highlight the changes generated by a new communication technology.

Analysis of the critical incidents indicates three distinct effects created by electronic communication.

Effect 1: The medium is the message

A potential pitfall for E-mail users is that they may focus their attention on the process of sending the message while ignoring its impact on the receiver. They may tend to concentrate more on the electronic functions--typing, scanning, and executing commands--than on who will receive the message and how it will be interpreted.

Critical Incident: "I've sent out hasty notes on PROFS that I probably wouldn't have on the telephone or face to face. The system doesn't allow you a cooling-off period. Once you hit the button, the message is gone."

This phenomenon is known in computerese as "flaming." It means to get carried away with the message, sometimes to the point of using profanity. The process of typing a message on a keyboard and sending it on its way with a keystroke appears to introduce an artificial barrier, which may result in inappropriate, distorted communications.

Such sender-oriented focus seems to remove inhibitions. The stage is set for expressing thoughts that an employee might not say face to face or put in a written memo.

One respondent in the study coined the phrase "PROFS Wars," meaning that "you take a stance that may be more aggressive because you're not face to face."

Effect 2: The hierarchy is abolished

Depending on how a particular E-mail system works, one keystroke can put every person in the organization on a distribution list--regardless of rank, title, or function. …

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