Column: On Managing
John Lubans, Jr.

Winter, 2000 issue

“While I Was Busy Holding On, You Were Busy Letting Go”:
Reflections about E-mail Networks and the Demise of Hierarchical Communication

“You Have Mail”

Next to inadequate parking there is no organizational topic with more said and less done about it than communication.

Want to set eye-balls rolling skyward?, put “improving communication” on the agenda. Communication is, it seems, always scarce, wanting and needing to get better. The word serves as a dyspeptic catch-all, like in the phrase “communication problem”, an over-simplification of why and how things can go wrong.

Into this bleak realm has come, unheralded, what would become one of the two “killer apps” of the Internet: e-mail. Typical of transformational inventions, the unintended consequences have been profound. Without meaning to, e-mail networks have had more impact than other carefully orchestrated strategies for reorganizing and improving our work efforts. “You have mail” is part of the national lexicon.

But, have e-mail networks made a tangible and lasting difference in communication, for information sharing and decision making in the organization?

Or, is e-mail just another tool in communication’s largely ineffective arsenal? Has e-mail merely aggravated a bad situation? Is it more curse than blessing, a ‘frivolous and wasteful” daily diversion in the work place?

Indeed, there are those “drinking from the fire hose” engulfed by torrents of e-mail. Also, every library has its share of flamers - the road ragers of the infobahn. And, yes, every library has more than its share of pack rats with in-boxes crammed to overflowing with 2000 and more “must-have” messages. 

My take?: For most people e-mail is a positive, liberating and helpful way of communicating, bringing much to the workplace, to staff and to our production systems. By making distance insignificant, e-mail endows us with a sort of ubiquity, landing us on everyone’s desktop, simultaneously. The productivity benefits from writing once and using hundreds of time and of “cut, paste & send” are equal, if not superior, to the alleged benefits of, say, the AACR-2.

To understand the phenomenon better, I asked over 50 technical services staff (cataloging, acquisitions and serials) how they used e-mail and what they thought of it. This was in late 1997, capping a decade of innovative organizational experiments in the technical services division, all with a strong participatory emphasis. The outcomes of our efforts were measurable: in productivity we vaulted from marginal performer to the top of our peer group.

Many of the respondents had made the transition from manual to electronic communication. If anyone could speak to E-mail’s effect compared to the way it was, they could.

This is what they told me: 

     E-mail is highly regarded for sharing information and for gaining an awareness (big picture)of what’s happening in the library overall.

     And, e-mail is significantly helpful for communication across departments and for finding answers to work related questions. Over 70% of the staff believe e-mail helps them get their work done.

     Two-thirds of the staff say e-mail is helpful in making decisions relevant to their work. Well over half believe that the accuracy of grapevine communication is improved. And over half see e-mail as a positive force for influencing decisions outside their jobs.

     Bottom line: Three out of 4 staff say e-mail has a positive influence on their productivity. 

“A Subversive Activity”?

Margaret Wheatley is one of the administrative theorists I pay attention to. Her work on self-organizing systems is highly relevant to what we claim we want for our library organizations. In this “white water” era of librarianship, we say we want a flexible and resilient model for anticipating change and managing it.

Because e-mail communicates at the speed of light, across, around, and in-between barriers, it brings us close to gaining some of the benefits of self-organizing systems, ones that are more loosely structured than the prevailing hierarchical model.

But, for Wheatley, “Networking is an incredibly revolutionary act. It's probably the best way to bring down an existing structure... Networking people is not a neutral act. It's a subversive activity.”

E-mail has the potential to empower, in a true sense, all staff. It can do so because of the network’s inherent ability to truncate distance and to create pathways which:

     find information. In true self-managing systems, everyone has access to all information when they need it; and,

     make relationships. In self-managing systems, everyone has access to whomever they need, whenever they need them.

Let’s not confuse the medium with its message. E-mail is not inherently liberating. What it is, is a highly streamlined way of communicating. That’s because it alleviates much of the drudgery and inertia of making unanswered phone calls and typing, addressing and mailing out paper correspondence.

And, e-mail, from desk-top to desk-top, can bypass the routine filtering mechanisms in administrative offices and chains of command.

I wanted to know how Duke staff perceived communication channels in the no-rules e-mail era. Also, because we had designed a highly participatory organization, it the library seemed to be an ideal place to test out claims, like Wheatley’s, about e-mail’s reach.

Did staff stay within the lines of the prescribed communication channels or did they create new routes, new pathways, somehow outflanking the hierarchy? Were the traditional pathways, those solid lines on the org chart, fading away? 

Here is what the staff told me:

     Supervisors may be pleased - almost 80% of the staff selected supervisor as the person most communicated with via e-mail.  About half (45%) stated they communicate with their team-mates.

     But, lending some credence to Wheatley’s view, almost 70% did say they also communicated with “library staff outside my immediate team”.

     And, not inconsequentially, about one of four staff said they e-mail “friends on staff” and a similar number communicates directly with the library administration. Is that a problem for supervisors? (See the case study).

If we are to gain the benefits of staff moving beyond their immediate zone of responsibility, we probably need to identify how far we want communication to go and what, if any, controls to place on it.  How, in this liberated scenario, will managers continue to stay in touch, add value, lead and help the organization?

Just how resilient and flexible an organization do we want? Really.

     We need to define the concepts of network privacy and confidentiality. Some claim there is no privacy in intra or inter-networks and none is needed under their mantra of “Information wants to be free”. The rest of us may not be so generous, but we need to know that system archives and back-ups capture all of our electronic correspondence for retrieval and review, if administrators are so inclined.

If we do encourage communication in all directions, copying supervisors on every missive would be burdensome for everyone. Rather, continuously teaching staff to better understand the differences between what is a routine problem and what is an extraordinary one seems like a positive step.

What is appropriate open communication? Since e-mail networks do democratize, what ought to be the concurrent new protocols and manners governing this form of communication? Is everyone to read everyone’s mail? That might appeal to the insatiably curious, but, it is unlikely that the boss (or anyone else) now can actually interact, one on one, with more people than they used to prior to electronic networks.

As a rule of thumb, most people can work with no more than 30 substantive e-mails per work-day, reading and responding. This, by the way, leaves them no time for their other “work”, unless they opt for extra hours. Even the most obsessive administrator will tire of being that plugged-in.

      Managers should try to assure an organizational understanding of when e-mail is appropriate. Rather than, “fire-walling”, imposing managerial control and screening of e-mail, as many corporations are doing, we ought to train staff in effective and productive uses.

     If we consciously move staff in the direction of more open communication, then we must be able to hold each other accountable. For example, the end-run to the boss can be a useful, if desperate, strategy, but it can also aggravate problems rather than solving them. How your boss (and all bosses) work with the end-run, of course,  will determine the result.  Keeping it a secret, treating it like gossip, is the wrong way in most cases.

Again, let’s not confuse the medium with its message. Good bosses or high achieving staff get better using e-mail. Bad bosses or problem staff get worse. Well thought out communication, or poor choices, go equally further, faster on e-mail. 

In conclusion, e-mail has had a highly positive effect on staff productivity and the staff’s understanding of the organization. Importantly, it promotes good communication practices so that staff have access to people and information vital for dealing with fast moving changes and for understanding what is happening. The easier the communication, the greater the potential for improving the quality of work life and productivity.

That said, let’s not lose sight of the continued need for human contact and eye-to-eye relationships. One staffer’s reality check: “E-mail has a somewhat high influence on overall productivity, but it will never be able to take the place of human contact”.


Sidebar case: 

The “open E-door” policy

Pam, a new supervisor in your department is being stress-tested by her unit - a historically malcontent group. In your office, frustrated to tears, Pam says that she knew this “reform” assignment was no garden party, but she was not prepared for the intractable opposition to change. More frustrating and worrisome to her is what she intuits is an erosion of her position and authority.

Pam, from day-one of her assignment four months ago, has taken a no-nonsense but even-handed approach, learning each person’s job, giving balanced and regular individual feedback, meeting regularly with the group, and starting a program of cross training for all staff. The 6-person unit is resisting mightily, even though a few, individually, support Pam’s efforts.

The grapevine’s told you that a couple of staff in Pam’s unit are sending e-mails to the director; an electronic version of the classic “end-run”. Their missives complain of Pam’s inexperience and her “unrealistic expectations” about work loads, and ridicule her handling of a probationary hire, etc.

The director, who is in her first year, has not mentioned any of this. However, she is curious about how Pam is doing.  You explain how tough the assignment is and describe the extensive baggage carried by the unit. The director wonders out loud “if we’ve not asked too much of a novice manager”? You say that you are working closely with Pam and believe that with perseverance and support she’ll make it.

The director prides herself in being “sensitive to staff issues”. When hired, she made a point of her “door” being always open, literally and electronically.  An admirable policy, but keeping e-mail a closed loop between director and the aggrieved individuals has a price. It has empowered Pam’s critics at the cost of disempowering Pam. The lack of an un-equivocal response from the director offers tacit encouragement to the unhappy. A few of your department head peers are expressing similar concerns about this “e-door” access for one and all.

In the meantime, Pam is losing sleep and enduring the “silent treatment” and other incivilities. When you recommend it is time to lower the boom on this unit by disbanding it, the administrative office sends indecisive signals about what they’ll do if “push comes to shove”.

You want to help Pam, you’ve taken a chance on her being up to this Herculean task - in fact you admire her remarkable resolve and poise under duress.

So, what would YOU do?



John Lubans and Rosalyn Raeford, “Email and the Technical Services Organization: Research Notes on a Preliminary Exploration”. Draft, September, 1997. 5p. Available on the Web at site below.

Margaret Wheatley, quoted in an interview, in the Spring, 1997 issue of CAUSE/EFFECT (p.19)

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