I went from my undergraduate degree in 1988 into a role as a Logistics Manager for Vichy L’Oreal. The job involved using a stand-alone PC, a telephone to the factory in France, and a weekly Telex to Paris. I was appointed on the basis that I spoke French. I couldn’t write French for caramel au beurre (toffee), but I could speak it. No one asked me at my interview whether I had any computer skills or indeed whether I was numerate. I didn’t have email.
Today employers make similar assumptions about digital competence. I have just finished a consultancy project looking at embedding real-world practices and assessment in a business degree. The external reviews had been good, but the feedback from the destination surveys with employers less so. Their recent recruits could not communicate appropriately using email.
This challenge was described by Cal Newport in his Harvard Business Report piece “A Modest Proposal.”(2016). Outlining IBM’s early experience of corporate email in the 1980s, he explains that while the first few days showed positive signs of increased productivity but quickly employees simply adopting the system for their routine offline communication, and notably communicated ‘vastly more’ than they had before. “Thus — in a mere week or so — was gained and blown the potential productivity gain of email,” Newport cites an IBM manager. Email is now a source of inefficiency. Email use is so ubiquitous it becomes difficult to imagine running an organisation without it.
The review of this particular business degree demonstrated much like that was positive. Lots of collaborative project type activities and group assessments. Business simulations using software, embedded in the institutional learning management system, form the basis of the second year and a ‘new’ business project provided the foundation for the third year. In many ways it is a progressive design, sharing characteristics of many medical school’s approaches to ‘problem based learning’. So, why weren’t the employers recruiting from this degree happy?
It turns out that the employers biggest complaint was the inability of graduates to use email effectively. Their complaints mirror closely many of my own with the way colleagues routinely use email, so let’s unpack them.
Saying enough, but not too much. Writing a handwritten email requires thought before you write and a conscious decision whether to ‘go over the page’. It leads to shorter, more direct forms of asking questions or answering them. Students who do not use email (preferring messaging apps) are not practiced at measuring their message.
Treating email like chat. Students who are invested in the immediacy of communication, and the transient nature of the message, are prone to not invest sufficient thought in the enduring nature of business communication. Microsoft Teams, Yammer, and other messaging apps simply reinforce this behaviour. Communications may be immediate, but it’s it also ‘cheap’.
Inappropriate use of reply-all. Senior managers expressed some frustration with receiving emails with ‘thanks’ as the body of the email, sent to everyone, sometimes dozens of people, simply because the person hit ‘reply-all’. The question one might ask is if you received a paper memo from the same person, with the same information, would you go to the trouble of writing a memo back that says ‘thanks’?
Lazy addressing of email. Dragging out an old email in order to identify a sender and then hitting reply fails on two counts. Firstly, it may be that without changing the subject heading, the email may be filed with a conversation thread that is otherwise closed. It may get lost, and prove difficult to retrieve if the subject is different from that of the header. Secondly, the dreaded ‘reply-all’ means that one risks sending an appropriate message to people you did not mean to contact. Human Resource departments often have stories of ‘misunderstandings’ borne merely as the result of inappropriately sending email to the ‘wrong’ people.
Some larger commercial organisations are templating emails, turning them more into ‘digital memos’, using mailing aliases, using more BCC, and originating emails from ‘do-not-reply@‘ addresses. I came across one company that has banned all internal email, using Teams for anything internal, and using email for external communications. There are moves for organisations to reimpose a degree of structure around workflow and issuing mandates (as French legislation does) protecting the right for employees to ‘un-plug’. Organisations are embracing the limitations imposed through tools like Slack, imposing different internal and external channels. Others are simply exploring internal training courses on how to write emails efficiently. Some have even chosen to embrace the paper memo to replace some internal communication. Somewhere I am sure someone is ‘reinventing’ Lotus Notes as I write.
There is a growing problem, not just for the younger generations now graduating who have no experience of email efficiency, but for businesses worldwide. My advice to the leadership of the degree that I was consulting on was to make the second and third year projects less ‘clinical’, more chaotic in terms of the technology platforms that were available to students. Students need to learn to communicate using email in its wild and untamed form. That would require students to be educated as to write digital memos.Then any restricted workflow they may encounter will be a bonus.
I had actually used a PC before I joined Vichy in 1988, but certainly not the way the role required of me. Fortunately I seemed to have the ‘knack’. As well as the weekly telex and making daily phonecalls, I wrote a handful of internal memos (on paper) each week. I was managing a monthly budget of millions of pounds worth of stock flows with just that level of communication. I can imagine there are at least three people doing the same job now, engaged in a sisyphean effort just to manage the email traffic.
Newport, Cal. “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.” Harvard Business Review, February 18, 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/02/a-modest-proposal-eliminate-email.
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