Why Email is an Inefficient Tool in Project Management

Despite the common understanding that email is an inefficient tool, it continues to remain one of the most frequent communication methods in managing complex projects. We all need to understand the systematic role of communication in taking a project to its desired successful state. Many project managers make the mistake of presuming that if a message is sent, it will be effectively received. Sadly, this is not always the case and “email sent = message received” is not one of the communication rules that should be taken for granted.

The Importance of Communication in Project Management

It goes without saying that communication is one of the highly emphasised factors determining the success or failure of any project. It is well-understood that effective communication can be a challenging task, especially when a project incorporates people with different skills, authority levels, responsibilities, experience and backgrounds.

The communication gets even more challenging when the people involved are working in different companies under separate working guidelines. Experts define effective communication as one where delivered message conveys the same importance and meaning to its receiver that the sender had in mind, encouraging the receiver to take the desired action.

Issues with Using Email as the Primary Channel for Communication

We often make the error of using email as the primary communication channel, which gives rise to misunderstandings. By using email as a primary communication channel, we assume many things such as:

  • The message is perfectly understood by its receiver
  • The receiver has read the message within the expected time frame
  • Sending email is sufficient to alert the receiver and to generate desired response or action
  • The receiver accepts the task and will deliver it within the expected time frame and costs

Email communicationOnly one of these assumptions turning out to be false may create problems for the whole project. A developer who does not fully understand the task or a team member unable to react to the email topic in time may create a delay or even a crisis, without this being their fault. Overuse of emails instead of direct communication methods such as phone, chat, video conference, face to face, etc. leads to critical communication issues.

Many things can go wrong including rough work completion, missing expected time frame, lapses in assigning tasks, internal conflicts due to a misunderstanding of assigned tasks, and so on.

So, why do people still think of email as a handy, and how could email communication create oversights in project management?

Why Is Email Still Seen as a Convenient Choice?

  • Email is almost free in comparison to other communication channels such as video conference, phone, or travelling
  • Email is easy to use, and the majority of the workforce is familiar with its functionality.
  • Emails are quick and easy to write and use; sometimes it is more convenient to communicate with several people at a time through emails rather than chasing them to have a face to face conversation.
  • Email can be used to avoid one-on-one conversations in instances when the sender wants to talk about something negative or unpleasant. It’s a good way to dodge awkward one-on-one situations and possibly having the other person take their anger and frustration at you.
  • Transfer the responsibility from the sender to the receiver. For example, assigning a task to someone else and assuming it will be their assignment to perform the job in a manner that meets expectations, without having a real confrontation with the recipient.

Issues with Email Communication

Despite being quick, and easy, communicating through email carries numerous disadvantages, and can invite serious troubles. Project managers must consider following issues before opting for email communication:

Impersonal communication channel: With email, one establishes a superficial emotional connection, and it can be very hard to express desired intentions to the receiver unless they already have a strong professional as well as emotional connection. Email is also a challenging channel to express importance or seriousness of various project tasks. Based on such challenges, for the first time communication or communicating with less known people, you should avoid email. Also, if you want to discuss an important issue with emotional implications, emails are definitely not an effective medium.

Asynchronous medium: Email only gives sending authority to project managers, senior staff and team leaders; they do not have a complete control over its response time. In time-sensitive projects where quick response is expected, email communication can cause serious timeline related issues involving receiving time, content type, missing details etc. Also, it is not an effective medium to encourage or generate the desired response from a receiver.

Contextual issues: With email, it is very easy to divert from the desired meaning of the conversation. Also in many instances, a receiver forwards an email to another person who is incapable of understanding its context and also its seriousness. Such situations lead to unwanted conflicts and complexities in project management.

Communication toolsInconsistent channel: Email is an inconsistent channel for sharing, especially when sharing critical documents among project team members. People can easily share and/or forward old or wrong documents with improper or outdated guidelines; such situations can easily create unnecessary mishaps and project delay. That is why I believe that the role of the email should be restricted to providing updates, and we should consider including more dependent collaborative tools such as Sharepoint, Onedrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc. or document management systems. Such tools provide clarity over shared documents and serve as an accurate reference point to access all types and versions of shared files. It also provides controlled access to the document granting the security of the information.

Lack of control:
Did the recipient receive the mail? Was the email understood? Was there an answer? If the answer was sent using “reply” and not “reply to all” should the answer be forwarded? Multiply this for any recipient on the distribution list!

Of course, I’m not stating that we should stop using emails! They could still be useful for maintaining communication flow, delivering updates, periodic announcements, and sending motivational thoughts. But we must be careful since, as we’ve established, the email is not an efficient tool to assign and control critical project tasks or communication. For those, collaborative tools are the better choice by far.


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