The Internet and email have changed the environment in which organizations operate. Email allows messages to be sent with ease and speed. The Internet gives unprecedented access to a wide array of information. This changing technological landscape has not only impacted employees, but also the customers, vendors, shareholders and bureaucrats with whom they interact. While email and the Internet may have increased organizational performance, they have also added new types of conflict. Importantly, they have led to shifts in the power relationships between organizations, employees and consumers.
All organizations have conflict management systems and manage conflict along a continuum of consciousness. There are those that are 'consciously competent' in the way they nurture their conflict management system to maximize the opportunities for growth. Those that are unaware of their conflict management system are 'unconsciously incompetent' in their management of conflict. Organizations that approach conflict with any degree of consciousness, appreciate that the use of email and the Internet need to be integrated into their overall approach to conflict management.
The use of email continues to expand, replacing more traditional modes of organizational communication. Managers routinely use email to keep their employees informed and to follow up on face-to-face interactions. Email is also used to make unpopular requests and to avoid complaints. Referred to by some as the "cowards choice", email enables unpleasant business to be dealt with at a distance. As with face-to-face communication, email presents new opportunities for confusion, misunderstandings and avoidance and because there are no non-verbal cues the potential for miscommunication increases.
The Internet, as a generator of choices, provides new venues for conflict to emerge. Information that was formerly difficult to access is now available to employees and customers through company web sites, intranets, and more recently business to employee portals. (Sophisticated intranets that allow employees to create the equivalent of a 'My Yahoo!' The information they need to maximize performance is self-selected and organized on their work home page.)
Most of the new conflict to emerge are variations of conflict types that already exist. In the workplace this includes surfing the web to visit pornographic sites, illegally downloading music and software, sending sexually explicit or off color jokes, leaving threatening or annoying messages, sexual harassment, and monitoring email and internet use without employees consent.
Access to information, as a source of power, has shifted the power dynamics, not just between employees and managers, but also between organizations and their customers. The Internet delivers choices and email provides a gateway to persons that were previously inaccessible because of organizational boundaries and hierarchical protocol. These changes have led to an overall increase in resources for employees and customers. Changes in power dynamics and boundaries have led to behavioral change. For example, in negotiation experiments, men were five times more likely to make a proposal than women. Online, women make the first proposal as often as men do. (Thompson: 1997)
Online collaborative tools have the potential to reach geographically remote team members, provide a shared information platform, and support the negotiation of different members interests. However, to what extent online tools, including email, actually support the negotiation process has been questioned. Valley (2000) found that email and telephone negotiations ended in impasse more often than face to face negotiations. Other studies (Siege et al, 1986) have suggested that online groups adopt more extreme positions, something that is counter-productive to the negotiation process. More encouraging is a finding that more information is shared up to four times more when comments are added anonymously over the internet, rather than talking face to face. (Joinson: 2000)
The reality is that the use of email and the Internet have created new challenges and opportunities for organizations in their management of organizational conflict. A recent report, (Guidelines For The Design Of Integrated Conflict Management Systems) from the Association For Conflict Resolution (ACR: 2000) may hold some of the answers to the integration of the Internet into conflict management systems.
The report advocates an integrated approach to the management of organizational conflict. An integrated conflict management system is presented as an ideal that exhibits a number of specific characteristics. It can be described as a coordinated and supportive method for dealing with all types of conflict; through multiple access points; providing a variety of right and interest-based options; and creating a culture that welcomes dissent and supports collaborative negotiation to resolve conflict at the lowest level of intensity possible. The focus is on the importance of blending interest-based options (such as mediation) with rights-based options (such as arbitration). By extension, the logic of integration applies equally to the real and virtual worlds that organizations now inhabit.
Many organizations limit the types of problems they will deal with through grievance or complaint procedures. For example, the United States Postal Service only provides mediation services through its REDRESS program for equal employment opportunity disputes. This often forces employees to present an interpersonal dispute as a violation of a protected category so that a venue for resolution is provided. As organizations have moved online, new frontiers have opened and with them new types of conflict. The full breadth of conflict types need to be addressed in the conflict management systems of the future.
Employees and customers must be able to access a conflict management system with ease. Rather than making it difficult to complain, and creating barriers to access that lead to hightened frustration, organizations are encouraged to provide a variety of access points for employees and customers to address their problems early. To the extent that people find it easier to file complaints using email or the Internet, both these options should be included within an organizations conflict management system.
The potential for online access to dispute resolution services is confirmed by a variety of initiatives. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), for instance, has implemented a new computer system that will allow taxpayers to complain about individual IRS employees on issues ranging from rudeness to harassment. Consumer complaint web sites such as eComplaints.com and UGetHeard.com are venues that faciliate the expression of dissatisfaction with e-transactions. The Federal Trade Commission now provides an online complaint form and eCaveat.com forwards grievance letters to merchants. LaborMate.com has developed software that will allow employees to file, manage and resolve grievances online. Many organizations already have intranets and it is easy to envision access being provided to both employees and customers alike through email, the Internet, intranets and business to employee portals. Increasingly, filing or responding to a complaint will be a click away.
The integration of interest based and rights based options is a crucial characteristic of a healthy conflict management system. Although the percentage of organizations that have grasped this is relatively small, the rationale for multiple options has been convincingly addressed by the ACR report. As organizations integrate the Internet into their conflict management systems, they should also consider online dispute resolution options. Currently face-to-face dispute resolution is the default. However, as in the training field where the default is shifting online, the same may happen with conflict resolution. Notwithstanding the challenges of online communication, it is likely that online dispute resolution will in time replace face-to-face conflict resolution and where it does not, will be used to complement the face-to-face process. In addition to online mediation and arbitration, other online options include a virtual ombuds office; a web site with information about the organizations conflict management policy and general information on the different options; an emergency email service that is the equivalent of a 1-800 hotline and an online process advice service.
According to the ACR report, "many organizations discourage the constructive management of conflict by sending the message that those who raise concerns are themselves the problem. Effective integrated conflict management systems communicate the proprietary of raising concerns and encourage employees to address these concerns as early as possible and at the lowest level." This reflects a view of conflict through 'low context' lenses. As Femenia has pointed out, online conflict management systems will have to focus on the cultural values of employees and customers alike and find ways of embracing both low and high context cultural backgrounds. Cultural attitudes will decide if and how a complaint will be filed and what interventions are appropriate. (Femenia:2000) The Internet and email can play an important role through their ability to make information available about the role that culture plays in the conflict management process.
Old patterns will re-emerge if support is not provided for changes in the way conflict is handled within an organization. To sustain the move to an integrated conflict management system, that also embraces email and the Internet, structures to co-ordinate and nurture the system are necessary. Some of the strategies to consider include senior management championship, a continuous oversight body, a central co-ordinating office, conflict coaching, training, evaluation, and reward systems.
In the U.S. legislation has been passed that will propel organizations to consider the implications of the Internet on their conflict management system. The Communications Decency Act (1996), creates specific standards for the use of telecommunications systems such as email, intranets, the Internet and even telephones. Other legislation being contemplated will impact the right of an employer to monitor email and Internet use of employees. The challenge of integrating the Internet into conflict management systems should not be a defensive response driven by the fear of litigation. Rather, it should aim to maximize all the Internet and email have to offer as new access points, new options, and new support structures for enhancing the satisfaction of employers, employees and the customers they serve.
Thompson, L 1997. The Heart and Mind of the Negotiator. Upper Saddle River, N.J. Prentice Hall.
Siegel, J., V. Dubrovsky, S.Kiesler, and T. McGuire. 1986. Group Processes in computer-mediated communication. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 37 157-186.
Association for Conflict Resolution, 2000. Guidelines For The Design Of Integrated Conflict Management Systems.
Femenia, N 2000. ODR And The Global Management Of Customers' Complaints: How Can ODR Techniques Be Responsive To Different Social And Cultural Environments? Mediate.com
Joinson, A 2000. Open University findings presented to the British Psychological Society Conference