Trending from the C-Suite: Management by Email

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We had MBO (Management by Objectives) for a long time. It’s an approach that still works. Then, we had MBWA (Management by Walking Around), a concept introduced by Tom Peters. MBWA suggests we need to get out of our offices and move around. But lots of people don’t have offices any more so I am not sure if this approach still works. It probably still serves any manager to get out and visit with customers and the staff.

Is it now time for MBE? (Management by Email) Why not? Or, a better question may be, is it too late to stop?

Organizations now send out layoff notices through email. Radio Shack is famous for terminating four hundred employees in one day through email. Thank you notes are all in email now. I know of at least one wedding proposal that was done through email. Why not managing through email?

Here are four reasons why MBE works:

  • Email is incredibly efficient. It is a vehicle that can convey a message in a short statement or two. Directives and expectations can be delivered to an entire workforce with a click of a send button.
  • Distribution is often an issue for managers. How can one get the same message to a million people at the same time? Simple! Email.
  • Time management is always an issue since organizations are so lean today. Only so many hours in a day and one cannot be in more than one place at a time, as they say. Email allows the day to get longer and for managers to send notes to lots of people in different locations.
  • It is possible to expand a manager’s span of control through email. It’s almost infinite.

Here are four reasons why MBE doesn’t work:

  • Communication is about a lot more than a few words in an electronic message. Passion, emotion, nuance are what people look for in a manager. Email doesn’t cut it on this front.
  • It is possible to be efficient without being effective. Organizations need both. Sometimes, effectiveness just cannot be delivered in an email.
  • Where is the people element? No one wants to be managed by a laptop. The main reason why we like our jobs, or not, is the nature of our supervisor. If our boss is supportive and a mentor, we tend to like our jobs. If the opposite holds, we quit.
  • Sometimes MBE is just not right. The best example is layoffs through email. There are legal and ethical issues but it’s also just not the way to treat people. If you want to get a lot of press and attention, do a layoff through email.

The pros and cons of both sides of MBE are forming. And there are lots of variables that can change how it works. What about a distributed workforce? What about a matrixed organization where no one is sure who the boss is? What about working from home? What about good writers and effective communicators? What about younger workers who think email is outdated?

Call me old school or fighting for a losing cause because MBE seems to be happening already and being implemented at an accelerating pace. Email has its place in the heart of all organizations but there are some elements of a manager’s role that just cannot be replaced.

And don’t even get me started on leadership through email.

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