Phone or Email? Meeting or Wiki? When to Use Which

Last Updated Mar 2, 2006 9:23 AM EST

When it comes to managing communications on a remote or virtual team, the question always arises: which tools are best? Should I use webmeetings? What about email, instant messaging, or file sharing? The answer, of course, is yes. The real question is: which tool should a manager use for what purpose? Here's a simple way to make that call.

The European researcher Bettina Buechel came up with a great matrix that makes choosing tools simple. She suggests a balance of Richness (lots of cues, real-time communication) and Scope (consistent delivery of the message across time and space). As you'll see in the model below, every communication medium -- from a one-on-one conversation to spam email -- fits on this continuum:

Buechels Richness vs Scope model

Here's how to gauge when you want "rich communication" (i.e., getting eyeball-to-eyeball with the person you're talking to) and when a simple (and coherent) email will do:

High richness/low scope: When stakes are high and you can't leave any room for misunderstandings, you want as many verbal, vocal, and visual cues as possible -- as well as real-time responses to questions. This is especially true when emotions are involved, for example when stress over a project could lead to defensiveness and misunderstanding, or when seeing the look of panic or confusion on someone's face would make you change your approach. Hiring interviews and performance coaching are emotional situations that are worth being in the same room for, no matter what it costs. If you can't be there, at least use a webcam or Telepresence to make the experience as rich as possible. (Nervous tics, blank stares, and evil grins don't show up on resumes.)

Medium richness/medium scope: It's important that you get things right but not necessarily critical that you be present at the moment. What's important is that questions get answered, your whole team has access to the correct and latest information, and it can be recorded or captured for reference later. Say you miss a conference call: You need the same information as those who did make it. One surprise for managers is that tools like file sharing, blogs, wikis, SharePoint, and Google Docs fall into the "medium richness" category. The opportunity for feedback, seamless revision updates, and referral makes them much richer than a simple email -- even if it's not real-time. As a matter of fact, when it comes to thoughtful feedback and careful analysis of information, speed is overrated: Offline tools allow you to ponder carefully before responding. When time isn't of the essence, and sharing your best thinking is required, these tools help avoid group-think (you don't get caught up in brainstorming activity and jump on a bandwagon you shouldn't jump on) and allow even the quietest members of the team to participate fully.

Low richness/high scope: Anyone who has ever spent two days apologizing for the tone of an email understands that it lacks richness and the ability to clarify things in real time. But email gets a bad rap: Fact is, it works nicely when used properly. (Watch for an upcoming post -- or ten -- on writing decent email to keep your remote team functioning.) When you need a simple message communicated quickly, consistently, and across the entire group ("Happy birthday to Rene," "Don't forget I need that data by Thursday"), it does the trick.

Think about this model the next time you're tempted to fire off an email instead of picking up the phone.