Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Closing the Loop

I can never quite understand why some people write emails, receive responses, and choose not to send any kind of acknowledgment. Maybe it's the apparent anonymity of internet communication, the sense that we can ignore necessary and productive courtesy in a way we'd never tolerate in person. Thus, many people fail to "close the loop."

You might be thinking: So?

Here's why it matters: Closing the loop reflects a practical rule that we learn from nature. It's one thing to chop down a tree for its wood. It's another thing to plant several trees after felling one. The first approach works at first but leaves an ugly hole in the ground. The second approach creates a renewable resource, the promise of more to come.

Simple, right? And yet many people don't close the loop online.

Here's my perspective: I regularly receive email-questions related to my academic job, often dozens a day. Students seek advice on homework, strangers request professional expertise, that sort of thing. Each email asks for my time, which I'm happy to give, even if my effort spent on emails exceeds the expectations of my paid employment.

But what happens if someone chooses not to close the loop?

To me, that choice is similar to a person entering my office, asking me a question, receiving a reply, and then leaving wordlessly. How would you feel? Days later I'll wonder: "Did that student find my advice to be helpful?" or "Did that researcher get my reply?" I have no idea whether my time was well spent. And I have little time to waste.

Then I wonder: Why expend energy with no noticeable outcome?

To some folks, closing the loop makes no sense. Maybe it's a corporate mentality that presumes that "thank you" messages are inefficient, a waste of time. Heck, if I email "thank you," and you reply, "thank YOU," and I follow-up, "seriously, thank YOU," the consequence could be an endless loop, a real time-suck. Civilization would soon collapse, right?

Well, no. Courtesy is a foundation for civilization - and productivity.

A person or organization that ignores basic courtesy conserves time now, but ultimately sows the seeds for time-consuming communication failure: people feeling no desire respond meaningfully to each other, ignoring "strangers" who don't appreciate their efforts. Wasted energy and lost productivity result from that momentary savings of time.

Still, we must consider: What about the time it takes to close the loop?

Certainly you don't need to compose a book-length acknowledgment or drip your email with flowery prose. But you've got to say something, if only a brief "thank you," or "got it," or even "cool." The goal is to recognize the gift of personal attention, a gift that is rare these days as efficiency replaces courtesy as our dominant expectation.

I conclude with Ohio University Dean Gregory Shepherd's (Wired, 17.08) observation: "Communication is not just about accomplishing tasks . . . it's about managing relationships." Sure, I'd quibble with Shepherd's utilitarian notion of "management," but I share his focus on relationships. I therefore offer this advice to anyone sending an email:

Ask a question? Get an answer? Close the loop.


detroit dog said...

I'm with you on this one. So-called "professional" behavior (such as not closing the loop) irks me.

About 2 years ago, I was asked by a fundraiser at the Detroit Symphony for suggestions of people she might contact in the Latino community to sponsor an upcoming concert. I sent her a list of names/emails/phone #s with information about the person and what each organization probably could or couldn't do. I never heard back from her. A couple months later (after the concert), I sent her an email and asked how everything went. She said she decided not to use the info; they went with one sponsor only. But still no "Thanks anyway for helping out." I should charge for the info.

As you can see, it ticks me off big time.

highway163 said...

Ohhh. That irks ME, and I wasn't even there. :-) Knowing that we're not alone on this helps a little. Thanks for sharing, DD!

Karen Roy said...

I learned the whole "this loop is closed" thing from you Andy, and I use it all the time with my on-line friends; they love it. It's a BASIC and respectful courtesy, kind of like sending an actual "thank you" card to someone in the mail (remember those days?), except much easier. There's just no way any of us is TOO busy to click "reply" and say "got it, thanks", or something to that effect. Come on people...!

Karen Roy- SJSU Grad. Student