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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Army leaders use electronic communication on a daily basis. Whether it is by computer, BlackBerry or smartphone, it is part of how they share information, engage in professional development, disseminate tasks within their organizations, and much more.

Only a decade ago, leaders would have performed most of these activities face-to-face, or verbally on the telephone. With electronic communication much more prevalent in the information age, leaders should be aware of its benefits and drawbacks to understand its effects on relationships and organizations.

The benefits of electronic communication are numerous, of course. It helps us overcome the restrictions of time, distance and resources, and brings together people who otherwise might not be able to communicate or share ideas. But these benefits have side effects as well, including altering human interactions, inadvertently creating subgroups based on individuals’ access to digital systems, and increasing potential for micromanagement.

Overcoming Space, Time
The most obvious benefit of electronic communication is the ability to overcome distances of space and time. Consider the following situation: As the leader of your organization, you want to share something with your subordinates. But you are not able to get them together at the same place and time. They might be training elsewhere, for example, or busy with other tasks. You can use email or other electronic media to overcome this challenge.

Electronic communication enables people to share their message with a group. Individuals within that group can access that message when it’s convenient for them. However, communicating electronically removes other aspects of communication. When you speak face to face, along with the verbal message—the words themselves—you also convey paraverbal messages, which are the tone, pitch and pace of those words; and nonverbal messages, which are conveyed through facial expressions and body language. Telephonic communication preserves the paraverbal messages but loses the nonverbal messages that convey our emotions.

Subject to Misinterpretation
Most electronic communication preserves only the verbal message. This is part of the reason why emails can be easily misinterpreted. So as leaders use this medium more often, they are increasingly losing their ability to convey emotions. What kind of an effect does that have on a leader’s ability to build trust within his or her organization?

Another benefit of electronic communication is the ability to reach a large audience, especially through social media. A great example of this is Col. Ross Coffman, a brigade commander in the 1st Armored Division who started developing leader professional development videos on YouTube in 2014. In his first video, he stated that his intended audience was his company commanders. But by using YouTube, leaders from across the Army have been able to watch and learn from his messages.

Leaders have started developing podcasts as well, such as “Leadership on Tap,” to share their messages. YouTube and podcasts are platforms popular with younger generations, and they are accessed easily from around the world. Some people listen to podcasts during their commute to and from work, enabling access and an audience at a time not previously available. Social media and electronic communication enable leaders to flatten communication within their organization and distribute their messages to an audience larger than ever before.

Flattening an organization is good in many situations, including professional development, but there are potentially negative side effects. Flattening communication within a hierarchical organization such as the Army can remove leaders or staffs from the decisionmaking cycle—or possibly the conversation altogether. Maybe those removed would not normally weigh in on the decision, but what if it is a decision that normally benefits from staff synchronization? What if one member of the group does not currently have the ability to access digital systems? Many junior NCOs do not have regular access to computers in company areas. Are they being left out of conversations or decisionmaking?

These hypothetical situations are entirely possible, so leaders and communicators must consider their situation to ensure the appropriateness of the medium. Although leaders use electronic communication more, they must understand that it is not always the best method, even though it might be the easiest.

Saving Money, Spending Time
Beyond the convenience and access that electronic communication provides, it can also save an organization money. With the advent of email and other digital information systems, individuals and organizations can save money previously spent mailing letters and other documents. With the right software, you can even digitally sign documents, eliminating even more paper consumption. Finally, since all of these electronic documents can be stored digitally, organizations are no longer required to physically store as much information, saving building space and furniture costs.

The financial benefits are certainly welcomed in a tight fiscal environment, but what are the hidden costs? Does the ease of inexpensive communication create an artificial requirement to increase the amount of communication and share more information? Most leaders have visited an office to request a service, only to be turned away and told to fill out some paperwork, which must be submitted electronically. Or what about the time you were asked to “write that up in an email” as a record or reminder? Electronic communication might be more financially effective, but it may increase the demands on our time.

More damaging is the potential for micromanagement and the subsequent erosion of trust. Since it is easier to gather and share information, leaders often request and require more information from their subordinates. This enables higher-level leaders to make decisions that would previously have been made by more junior leaders.

Done repeatedly or unnecessarily, this becomes disempowering and damages trust in an organization. We are not suggesting an end to sharing information, only that leaders be cognizant of this negative potential. Electronic communication enables us to have more information at our disposal, but we need to be careful what we do with that information so as to not damage trust in our organizations.

The benefits and drawbacks highlighted here only scratch the surface of what could be explored in more detail. However, this analysis should help us reflect on our use of electronic communication and its effects on our organizations. The potential impact leaders should be most mindful of is how our communication style affects trust.

Communicating is part of the art of leadership. Like all matters of art, the advantages, disadvantages and risks must be weighed against each other. Leaders must consider the strengths and weaknesses of their communication methods to achieve their desired ends.