The Least You Need to Know About
Electronic Communication

Most recent update: 5 August 2003

Although computer-based communication employs many of the same strategies and techniques as do other forms of communication, electronic mail (email) and electronic conferencing are genuinely new communication media and require slightly different strategies if they are to be effective.

Communication technologies have been developed and have evolved over time as means of overcoming the two principal communication barriers: time and distance. In oral cultures, people had to be in the same location at the same time to communicate. With the advent of literacy, documents could be created and saved for future reading or transported from one location to another.

Electronic media greatly increase our capacity to overcome barriers of time and distance. In recent years, the use of such electronic media as the telephone, fax machine, electronic mail and electronic conferencing, have made it possible for many workers to practice what has become known as telecommuting. Instead of traveling to an office or central location to work, they work out of their homes or other remote locations and “commute” to work electronically. Telecommuting and other consequences of digital convergence will have a significant impact on the workplace of the near future.

Because of their immediate importance to business and managerial communication, my principal concerns here will be with the two most common forms of text-based electronic communication: email and electronic conferencing. I will eventually cover Web-based documents (like this one) and other emerging communication technologies.

Electronic Text

Although Web-based documents are increasingly common, some electronic text remains limited to the ASCII character set (capital and lower-case letters, numbers, and common symbols), and a significant number of displays use a monofont (in which all characters receive the same amount of space regardless of their actual width). Although most electronic communication protocols permit the exchange of formatted documents, some email and electronic conferencing software do not. Check with receivers to ensure that they can receive formatted documents.

Remember that readability on a computer screen is not the same as readability on paper. Text on a screen—especially monospaced ASCII text—is more difficult to read than material printed on paper. Material intended to be read on a screen needs to be formatted for screen readability.

The material presented here focuses on ways to make electronic text more readable and to help you improve the effectiveness of your email and conferencing messages.

Formatting Electronic Text

Just as letters, memos, and reports need to be formatted for readability, material prepared for posting on an electronic conference or for sending by electronic mail needs to be formatted for the convenience of the reader. To ensure readability on the screen, do the following:

  1. Use capital and lower-case letters appropriately. In addition to their normal use at the beginnings of sentences and for proper nouns and adjectives, capital letters are typically used for material that would be italicized in print, such as titles of books. Avoid the use of all capital letters, as that practice is considered rude. It is the electronic text version of shouting at your audience.

  2. Lines of type should be kept relatively short in text-based documents. Lines between 55 and 60 characters (including the spaces between words) are the easiest to read. Insert a hard return at the end of each line, or set your text editor to do it for you automatically. This rule does not apply to documents prepared for the Web and for HTML-sensitive email clients.

  3. Paragraphs should be relatively short. In general, follow the same rules for paragraphing as you would use for word-processed documents: keep the first and last paragraphs of a document to about four lines and middle paragraphs to about eight. In general, the longer the paragraph, the more difficult it is to read.

  4. In HTML-based documents (and in word processed documents) use italics rather than underscoring (underlining) words and phrases. Underscore (typically along with a change in font color) is best reserved for hyperlinks to other documents.

  5. Use numbered and unnumbered lists to help draw attention to specific points. Note that second and subsequent lines are indented, increasing the visibility of the number (or bullet) and the item.

  6. Be familiar with the characteristics of your system and the software you are using. Take a close look at what your system and software are doing before you automatically do what you have done on other systems using other software. The Confer system at WMU, for example, automatically supplies the name, date, and time for the individual entering items and responses. If you also enter your name, it is not only a redundancy, but also an absence of sensory acuity— failure to notice what is there.

    Email messages, however, usually require a greeting and a “signature” to be considered polite. Begin each email message with a greeting that includes the recipient’s name and conclude the message with a “signature” that includes your name and any required contact information. Also, what's needed to identify you for local recipients may not be the same as that for your remote mail correspondents.

    If you are sending email to someone on our system here at WMU, you usually need only your first name in your signature, as your username, which typically includes your last name, is included in the “From” information supplied by the email client.

Electronic Mail

Electronic mail is intended to serve as private correspondence between two people or among a specific group of individuals (a mailing list) to serve a specific purpose. Although email is a form of written communication and has much in common with business memos and letters, it also has some fairly specific characteristics of which email users should be aware. The following are the most important conventions for effective email messages:

Electronic Conferencing

Unlike email, which is essentially private correspondence, an electronic conference is designed to permit the ongoing discussion of specific topics by a group of people. Material posted to an electronic conference is available for all conference members to read. For this reason, messages posted on a conference should be either of interest to other conference members or of possible interest to someone you have not yet identified.

The conference we will be using in BUS 370, BUS370-DISC, is intended primarily for class use but is open to all faculty, staff, and students at WMU. Because it is essentially a “practice” conference, you have wide latitude of subject matter. You can and should, of course, use the conference to exchange information about class-related matters. Do you have a question about something? The conference is a good place to ask it. Have you found a URL that would be of interest to others? The conference would be a good place to post it.

You can also use the conference to exchange other information that would be of interest to others. If you are interested in music, for example, you could start an item to discuss your favorite type of music. Many members of the conference would share that interest. You might also want to discover which professors your fellow students would recommend for a particular class next semester.

Or you might want to know whether any conference member is going to Detroit for the weekend and would like a rider to share the cost of gas. Or you might want to know whether anyone on the conference is also in Professor Newell’s Accountancy 666 and knows how to do the homework due on Tuesday. These, too, would be legitimate postings.

Stay current with course-related postings. You are responsible for knowing the content of course-related items. If someone posts a sample solution to a case, for example, the case you submit should reflect your familiarity with my comments on that posting.

If you are in one of my classes, please see your syllabus for the criteria I will use to evaluate your conference postings. You can put a lot of different things on the conference, but only a few will contribute significantly to your points for this portion of the class.

The (World Wide) Web

The information you are reading now is on "the Web," originally known as the World Wide Web, hence the "www" you see in so many Web addresses. Anybody anywhere in the world who has access to the Internet and a Web browser (such as Netscape or Internet Explorer) can read these materials.

The World Wide Web is made possible by a special communication protocol (Hypertext Transfer Protocol—the HTTP you see in Web addresses) that allows for the exchange of documents containing text and graphics and, with additional software, sounds and video as well.

Use of the Internet in general and of the Web in particular has been growing at an exponential rate. You should expect the Web to be a major medium of communication in your future, and a little browsing should be all that's required to convince you of that. Note, for example, how many organizations are supplying the URLs (Uniform Resource Locators--or electronic addresses) for their Web sites in their magazine and TV ads.

In BUS 370 you will be required to use the Web as a resource for gathering information. Different lab sections will have different assignments, so see your lab syllabus and list of assignments to know what will be required in your section.

Other Technologies

A variety of other communication technologies (including the telephone, radio, and television) rely on electronics. Over the past several years, these forms of communication have been influenced by computer technology. The communications industries and computer industries are, in fact, merging. This merger is usually referred to as digital convergence.

Digital convergence will be a major—if not the principal—influencing factor on organizational communication for at least the next 10 years. Although we will not have either the time or the resources in BUS 370 to use any of these emerging communication technologies, you need to be familiar with the concepts behind the following:

The Information Age

These technologies—and technologies yet to be developed—are changing the nature of work. In every organization, information is increasingly playing a central role. In the Information Age, having the right information at the right time typically makes the difference between success and failure.

As one of the new knowledge workers, you will need to know everything you can about gathering the right information, storing it, retrieving it, and distributing it to the right audience at the right time. BIS 102 gives you an opportunity to improve your skills in these vital areas, and BUS 370 and related courses provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to select and use the most effective communication strategies and technologies.

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