Recently, a participant in a meeting needed to make an urgent request of a new colleague sitting right across the table from her, so she sent the request by email. What she discovered is that email is not always an effective form of communication. The colleague rushed from the room after the meeting, apparently ignoring her, and only after several days and a small flurry of clarifications did she realize that the colleague had simply not seen the request.

There's a general perception that email has improved communication for most organizations. But although email may make the act of communication easier, it sometimes makes communication more difficult. Senders often feel like their work is done once they've hit the "send" button. Yet at that moment they have little measure of how effective their communication will be.

In too many cases, it won't be at all effective. For some communication tasks, email is simply the wrong tool.

As the communication toolbox fills to overflowing, the complexity of deciding which tool to use becomes more tangled. That decision process is now so knotted that some organizations prepare flowcharts and matrices specifying acceptable types of communication for particular situations. Others are instituting policies and practices designed to reshape corporate culture in ways that reduce ineffective communication.

How do you decide? We recommend that before you click the "Compose Message" or "Reply" icon, you first determine whether email is the tool that will help you communicate most effectively.


If your message is really time-sensitive, don't count on email alone to get the required information to the recipient. Emails go astray, are overlooked, or may arrive just minutes after the recipient has checked his inbox and hours before he checks it again. If any of these possibilities could disrupt or delay the response you need, try to deliver your message in more than one way. Doing so increases the likelihood that the recipient can respond in a timely manner.


Know what purpose you are trying to achieve through an email. Are you trying to inform, explain, persuade? Are you trying to win agreement, extend a compliment, vent a frustration? Are you making a request, a demand, a suggestion? Can you achieve that purpose through email? If a subject is touchy or a purpose is delicate, email might not provide you with the nuance your message demands.


Allow your relationship with the recipient to help you ascertain whether email is the right communication tool. Will the recipient seek clarification if he needs it? Does he sometimes react before understanding? Is he someone you want to keep at a certain distance or pull in a little closer? If the relationship is at all problematical, you'll need to exercise special care and judgment when you email.


Remember, too, that email may last forever. Cyber-forever, anyhow, as the recent furor over the email trail of the climate change issue illustrates. Email can be stored, accessed, forwarded, distributed, misunderstood, cherished, subpoenaed, and used in any number of ways, some of them nefarious. So when you use email, know that it lives, and be as certain as you can that it cannot do harm as it spins into eternity.

Email is a good tool. Choose it when it's the right one.