Communication Isn’t Free: The Burden Has Shifted

One of the first jobs I had was at a small insurance brokerage firm.  As archaic as it sounds, back in those days, memos were physically printed and sent between offices in the mail (in fact, there may have even been the occasional handwritten memo sent). We didn’t have email, so if something was urgent, the only real options were to pick up the phone or send a fax. Every day, the post arrived in a big batch, and at the end of the day outgoing correspondence was collated and sent out in a big batch.  If you wanted to keep a copy of something that you’d received you had to, well, make a copy of it and decide where and how to file it. 

Communication: A drawing with people standing together talking. There are icons flowing between them (lightbulb, question mark,  magnifying glass etc) symbolising communication
Image credit: © melita — stock.adobe.com #300197089

In that type of environment the cost of communication was very transparent. Every single inter-office memo sent increased the company’s postage cost, required additional paper etc. If you were replying to a memo sent to multiple recipients, you’d think long and hard about who needed to receive the reply.  Absolutely nobody wants to spend any longer at the photocopier than they need to (and let’s face it, photocopying anything back then was potluck, with seemingly a one in ten chance the machine would jam or destroy your carefully printed original document in the sheet feeder). Because there was an inherent cost (and inconvenience) in communicating between offices, this type of communication tended to be considered, concise and some might say overly formal.

Fast forward to today and the economics of communication have changed drastically. I can send messages to friends all over the world by WhatsApp instantly at no additional cost beyond my usual internet connection fee. It’s possible to hit ‘reply’ to an email, and it’s no more expensive to send a reply to one or one hundred people (both are free).  The frequency and velocity of communication has increased.  We’re all dealing with more and more correspondence every day.  There’s email, Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, SMS, Telegram, Facebook, Twitter and the hundred other ‘apps’ that have probably launched in the time it took me to write this blog… And this is a positive thing, it breaks down boundaries and enables people to easily collaborate.  Nobody would want to go back to the inefficiencies of relying on post and fax.

However free messaging isn’t really free—done badly, it shifts the cost from the sender to the recipient.  Let me explain what I mean…

Reply All: The Bane Of The Corporate World

Let’s imagine you receive an email addressed to twenty people in your email box. It asks a simple question or something similar that the sender cares about but the recipients don’t.  Some people will hit ‘reply all’, without thinking, and in doing so will start to flood other recipients’ email boxes. Then people will “reply all” to those “reply alls” and the cycle continues. “No big deal”, I hear you saying “it’s easy to hit delete…”, which is absolutely true… except of course that won’t be the only email that you receive that day… there will be others and suddenly they’re all snowballing too and suddenly you can’t even see where to start in your inbox.  Plus your phone is pinging with all sorts of messages—many of which, frankly, don’t seem the least bit important to you… 

Why is this happening? Well, a social scientist would likely attribute many reasons.  However, I posit one reason as being that the cost of communication has shifted. Think back to the days of paper memos.  To ‘reply all’ to twenty people you’d have to print out a reply, photocopy it, put those replies in twenty envelopes and either put a stamp on them or send them for franking. You really wouldn’t do that unless you really needed to.  If you needed to find a piece of information, you’d look for that piece of information.  As a last resort you’d pick up the phone or write to someone and ask them to send a copy.

Today, with many communication channels, it is so easy, convenient and cheap (free) to communicate that there’s virtually no reason not to. But this shifts the burden from sender to receiver.  “Ah, I could look up that bit of information… but Jenny will know it, so I’ll just break her concentration by sending her an email and then an instant message when she doesn’t reply quickly enough”.

Avoiding The Shifted Burden: Being A Better Communicator

In the old-world, the cost of sending stuff meant there was a natural pause to think whether it was really necessary. And if it was necessary, the wording and clarity would be important (get it wrong, and you’ll get a query back, and since everything is going by post that’s another few days’ delay…).

Now the burden has shifted to the recipient. There’s no cost of sending stuff, so lots of stuff gets sent. It saves time for the sender to hit ‘reply all’ rather than carefully considering who needs to be on the distribution list… but it costs the time and attention of the recipients.  This has reached the point where there are well known strategies for turning off or batching emails to avoid distractions to actually get some work done during the work day.  

But here’s the thing: as business analysts and change professionals we deal with other ‘time poor’ professionals all the time.  If we can learn to be better communicators, and if we can save them time, they’ll thank us.  Rather than adding to the noise, we can help cut through it… imagine being the one person whose emails get instantly opened by an executive because they are always relevant.  Asking questions like “do they really need to receive this?”, “is this the channel that they would prefer?” and getting feedback is beneficial.

And if nothing else, pause and think before hitting ‘reply all’ 😀


What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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8 thoughts on “Communication Isn’t Free: The Burden Has Shifted”

  1. Very true words Adrian. I think it’s time for a change of mindset to “why would the recipient want to hear from me?” as opposed to “why wouldn’t the recipient want to hear from ME??” Ease of communication shouldn’t replace importance of communication- but it too often does!

  2. We need a new button our email apps. This one is labelled “Refuse”. It sends the message back to the sender with a short explanation that the receiver has no interest in your communication, and please do not send any more on the same topic.

    I have no idea whether getting a steam of “refused” emails would change mailing behaviour for the better, but it would do no harm.

    James

    1. I like that idea James. I also wondered whether having a button to press “I didn’t need to receive this” on every email.

      Then, each month, every email sender gets a report telling them the % of emails that they’ve sent that the recipients think are unnecessary…..

  3. I try not to judge Adrian, I really do, however the automatic judgement I make when someone replies to all, depending on where I am on the generous to cranky haven’t had my coffee scale, is it’s…..
    *a default/ automatic reaction
    *signalling….yes I am working
    *part of the way I’ve seen things done & I’m afraid to break rank
    *indicative of a cover your @rse culture or low trust environment

    I usually use my interim status to have the convo. Ask when folks need to be copied in and say I try and avoid a reply to all to save them time. It usually works when they trust me and they know I’m working even if they can’t see it through my email traffic. I also like go retro and actually speak to people. Shocking & very effective. 😉

    1. Thanks for the comment Sharon. I’d never really (consciously) thought that a “reply all” might be a signal to say “I’m working”, a kind of “I’m not slacking off!” signal. That’s a really interesting angle.

      Thanks as ever for your thoughtful & thought-provoking comment 😃.

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