Communicating with technology

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- "An email sent is not an email received."

A group commander said those words to me not too long ago. Effective communication is essential for any organization to function properly and we cannot accomplish the mission without it. However, we must utilize it properly.

We are an Air Force heavily reliant on technology. Communication technologies have improved efficiency in the way we execute our mission; however, these technologies are not always synonymous with effective communication. This may seem obvious, but the challenge lies with choosing the best method of exchanging information and tailoring it to each situation. Sometimes the best technology to choose is no technology at all. Sometimes face-to-face is the most effective way to communicate.

In the late 1700s, there was only one form of long distance communication available. During the Revolutionary War, when George Washington needed to speak to a planner in another division, he had to send written correspondence by foot or horseback. This process was painfully slow in comparison to today's standards, but it was the only option available.

These days, a commander can share their intent from one continent while using battlefield intelligence from another - just minutes after collection. His or her intent can then be emailed or posted on a website in time for mission planners on or near the battlefield to receive and respond to immediately.

We have the ability to share information across great distances and with speed like never before. Whether we are on the battlefield or in the cubicle, communication is essential to mission accomplishment. We should embrace the evolving technologies and use them correctly; however, we must maintain our most basic communications as well.

In most cases, it is obvious which form of communication to use after a quick evaluation of what the message is, who it needs to go to, what information or feedback you need in return and how quickly action needs to be taken. Email can be used to disseminate information to a large audience quickly. It is also a very convenient way to create records and exchange documents. Unfortunately, at times we have the tendency to "fire and forget." In other words, we assume the email made it to the correct recipient(s) and the intended message came across as if it were spoken and not misinterpreted. At times, it's required to reach a large audience quickly or in a "live" setting. Fortunately, technology such as chat rooms, Microsoft Office Communicator and texting provide us with that capability.

As uncomplicated and addicting as email can be, it's easy to stay trapped behind a desk where basic communication skills and the benefits from face-to-face contact can erode. Email has many purposes - like corresponding across an installation or ocean - but it is not always necessary for communicating with someone in the same office. Unless a record is required, we should take the time to stand up from our desk and walk to the next cubicle, down the hall, or even across the street and communicate face-to-face.

It is important not to forget the value of human contact. When an individual communicates face-to-face or via telephone, they build listening skills and can give and/or receive immediate feedback. These are both basic and essential elements of communication. With this, they are able to ensure the message was understood. In instances where an email is the most efficient form of communication (due to time zone differences, the need to create a record, exchanging files, etc.), a follow up phone call can go a long way towards closing the communication loop and avoiding the "fire-and-forget" trap. This can be especially important when communicating up the chain.

Technology has provided us with amazing tools to facilitate communication, but that does not mean that there is a single tool that is best for every circumstance. We need to use a combination of tools, embrace technology and at the same time, remember that communication is a two-way process.