Is Email the Business Analyst’s Friend or Foe?

Picture this if you will: It’s a Monday morning after a long weekend where you took Friday off to get out of the city. You were consequently out of 3G coverage which resulted in no mobile phone reception, and therefore no email access. Back to Monday – you start your email application, and you have 113 unread emails.

Do you:

  1. panic and hyperventilate, black spots start to appear in your peripheral vision,
  2. head straight to the kitchen, coffee will be your only saviour,
  3. knuckle down, and start going through the emails in the order you received them, or
  4. wish you lived in the 60’s when life was carefree?

Avoid this overwhelming email situation

Firstly, if you have that many unread emails as a BA, you are not managing your client or project team’s expectations very well. Everyone on the team should be aware that you have taken some time off (as everyone is entitled to) and therefore would not send you emails (other than a few CC’s). All too often I send emails to team mates, only to receive an out of office. This can sometimes be for leave for an entire week, and no one had any idea! It is extremely important to make sure that everyone knows when you will not be in the office; there is no shame in going on leave.

But regardless of who you inform, there will inevitably be a number of emails that you will have to work through. How you handle these will probably come down to your personality. But I think that there is something to explore here, because how stakeholders manage their emails could help you in managing them.

Decide whether to speak or to email

We all know people who prefer a 5 minute chat over sending an email. Some people are just wired that way – a short conversation suits them. We also all know other people who prefer to send a short email, allowing you to respond in your own time rather than being constrained by the immediacy that a telephone call requires.

The thing is, in my experience, the majority of people who prefer email over calls are younger people. This may be because the younger generation grew up with technology such as text messages and email as the norm, while the older generation grew up making calls. Or it might be because generally, the older generation have more responsibilities and require more immediate responses – they spin a lot of plates and when they have a thought that requires feedback, they require it now, and not sometime tomorrow.

Regardless of the reason, it is important to realise that these differences occur (between generations or between personalities) when working as a BA. In my experience, BAs tend to be younger than the subject matter experts from whom they work with on projects, and therefore inherently work differently. The BA may prefer to send a short email, whereas the business representative may prefer it if you popped round to their desk for a quick chat, or had a 5 minute call. It’s very important to pick up on the subtle (or not so subtle!) cues that you will get from various stakeholders as to their preferences, because then you can harness these preferences to get the most out of the stakeholders for the project.

Choose to make valuable use of tools

Email has revolutionised the workplace. It’s hard to remember organisations without it. But it has only been commercially used for the last 20 years. And while everyone can use email, don’t underestimate the impact that it plays on one’s formative years. Individuals who grow up with email as their primary communication method will think differently to people who have had to adjust. Not everyone is the same. But the good BA knows this, and adapts to suit their stakeholders.

As with all tools, one needs to best utilise the right tool at the right time. Email is merely a communication tool, and its successful use depends on the situation in which it is utilised. Use email too often and its effect may wear off. Write long, lengthy emails constantly, and you will find people will stop reading them. However if you intersperse conversations with email, choosing the right time to send a written question, delicately deciding who would prefer an email over a phone call, using email for agreement at key stages, I think that you will find email to be your biggest friend as a BA. That’s until you next go on leave…

>> Learn More About Good BA Communication

10 Ways to Communicate More Effectively on IT Projects

How to Get Your Stakeholders to Stop Repeating Themselves

How to Effectively Manage Multiple Participants on a Conference Call


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  1. Emails are great for confirmations and sharing of documents, but they do not facilitate consensus building and often result in poor decision making. Whenever I think there may be any emotion connected to the topic, or there are nuances involved, I stop by the person’s desk or pick up the phone rather than email.

    My email tagline is: Disclaimer: Email is a tool that is notorious for being easily misinterpreted. If there is any question about either the content or intent of this email, please phone.

    • Thanks Karen. While I hope it’s clear from the article that I don’t believe in a single approach and mix conversations with email, in my experience if I have wanted to be unambiguous and not be misinterpreted I send an email! I find emails remove the emotion.

      But you’re right, it often is not the best tool for consensus and decision making. People need to feel that they have been heard, and face-to-face discussions cater for this.

  2. Ryan – I’d like to pick up on Stu G’s point… “what of the now established world of distributed teams… it’s hard to have a water-cooler moment with someone 5,000 miles away?”

    Email and phone conversations are no longer the only option. Online collaborative tools such as Yammer or SocialText provide another alternative. As does Instant Messaging (e.g. MSN, gchat, etc.) I think the important thing to bear in mind is that the message must (1) suit the conversation (noted egs above re: sensitive conversations) and (2) suit the people having the conversation (different people prefer different mediums).

    Its worth bearing in mind that as BA’s we might have a desired outcome from a conversation – e.g. confirmation of a requirement. In this instance, it might be appropriate to go multi-modal: have the chat that you need to clarify things and follow up with a short email.

  3. I find I’m always tempted to email when I’m discussing something that I’m expecting opposition to – maybe an idea for some functionality, or part of a design with a technical architect.

    So nowadays, I force myself to have these difficult conversations on the phone or in person. It gets you used to dealing with these sorts of situations and often it can see them resolved in a more timely manner, rather than with the to and fro of an email chain.

    • Ben, that’s a good habit to have. Forcing oneself to speak to individuals, even when the threat of conflict is in the air, helps build relationships and does not make it look like you are hiding behind a ‘wall of email’.

      Having said that though, sometimes the ‘to and fro of an email chain’ can be useful, as long as it is mixed up with conversations (the multi-modal approach Dave R speaks about below). It’s really about what works for people.

  4. Catherine Perks says

    Nice article – it highlights some of the key concerns that are growing over the way we communicate. There are so many variables to consider when choosing a communication medium – personality, age, role, skillset, availability and the topic for discussion. Too often, these variables are not given the appropriate consideration. This is especially relevant in an age where social media is being used more, and communication is becoming less formal. In some organisations, email is even being replaced by some form of social network, which in one way draws people closer together but can also remove that (sometimes) needed degree of formality.

    As a younger BA, I prefer email as it is less intimidating and more familiar, whereas my older counterparts or SMEs at clients are more likely to discuss something face-to-face or over the phone. Up until now, this wasn’t really something I had particularly thought about, I just adjusted my approach as necessary. From now on, I will definitely think more before choosing a means of communication.

  5. Firstly, good read and an interesting article.

    I like the perspective of the experience/age concept, I also fully support the personality-affinity to different forms of “messaging” and I generally agree that most people prefer one to the other, I say generally as there is more to this that first appears…

    Another angle to consider is the appropriateness of the format. Email is not best for dealing with sensitive issues – either as people’s email may be read over their shoulder in an open office, it could be a topic that one rather wouldn’t have put across in text (real office example: body odour!)… so the email / conversation decision has other angles too. Other topics such as office etiquette “nudges” may not be best recorded until deemed necessary as it may be construed as a written warning (rightly or wrongly).

    Similarly – and likely a topic in itself for you to consider – what of the now established world of distributed teams… it’s hard to have a water-cooler moment with someone 5,000 miles away?

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