Opinion: Avoiding death by e-mail

Do you love your e-mail? Come on, it's just the two of us. Do you really?

How much of it do you receive? How much do you actually read?

What started out as a promising productivity tool over 20 years ago has grown wildly out of control and now bobs on the tides of abuse that are so prevalent in our world today. A once-great time-saver now threatens to choke off and suffocate the very people it was supposed to help liberate.

This is especially true in the corporate environment, where e-mail is like that boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, steadily gaining on Indiana Jones as he runs through a tunnel with no escape.

The time has come for bold change. And I recently witnessed something that gives me hope. We just need the right leadership.

The case against e-mail

Postal mail was great, though slow. Speed was why I loved e-mail, but over the last decade, the trade-offs for its convenience have mounted, and I now found myself spending five to six hours every working day just reading, filing, moving, responding to, moving again, writing and sending e-mail messages.

We are now plugged in 24/7 to all of our messaging streams. Woe to you if you go on vacation without access to them. The most common complaint I hear when people return is "I am still digging out of hundreds of messages!"

Having entered our lives innocuously, e-mail now has mutated into something with multiple means of preventing us from doing our jobs. And I'm not even talking about spam.

For one, it has evolved into the corporate file share. Need a document or spreadsheet? Here they are, via e-mail. That's convenient and easy, but it makes version control a nightmare. And our corporate systems get clogged up with this stuff. I have received 400MB documents unsolicited, only to find that I was unable to send out any e-mail because I was over my storage limit.

E-mail has also become the main corporate workflow tool. A proposal that needs a little bit of input from a lot of people will spend days or weeks wending through their in-boxes.

The most curious use I have seen, though, is for CYA purposes, invoking e-mail as a plausible deniability tool. Here's how this happens: Certain employees send me e-mails about every issue that arises, whether my input is needed or not, as well as numerous FYIs. As a result, I start to ignore anything from these people over time. Then some problem arises, I ask one of these people what they can tell me about it, and they immediately fall into CYA mode by pointing out that they sent me an e-mail message on March 4 talking about this very thing. Now it's my fault for not paying attention to their endless stream of input so I could pluck out that one bit of useful information.

Then, of course, there is the needless echo that e-mail sets up. Someone hits "Reply to All" to say, "I agree." Priceless. On behalf of all 27 of us, we thank you. No, wait: All 27 have thanked you on their own, and copied the other 26.

And e-mail is a type of shelter for directionless corporate employees who want to avoid performing any real work. Tending an e-mail box and waiting to pounce on each new message has become the quintessential skill in corporate life that does not yet have its certification. Maybe Professional E-mail Processor?

If anything, BlackBerries and other smart phones have made things worse. I rue the day someone took the out-of-control e-mail box, shrank it and clipped it to our belts so that with each buzz we can experience the anxiety that comes with the knowledge that there is yet one more message awaiting us. And people feel compelled to read these messages at home just to get a running start to keep up during the next day.

It isn't that we are communicating any better either. Despite all of this digital content we are generating, we still don't seem to be getting our points across. Communication is at an all-time high, yet comprehension is at an all-time low.

A bold new direction?

A divisional vice president with whom I work has also become fed up with all of these problems that beset e-mail. But he had a bold idea and was just crazy enough to implement it.

In a meeting not too long ago, he made a startlingly simple observation. Noting that he himself is drowning in e-mail, he said that we're all feeling compelled to sift through it all at night. "That takes away time from our families, which in turn stresses us out at work the next day."

And that's when he sprung his idea on us. He decreed that the only thing e-mail will be used for in his division is problems that require management intervention. "Everything else that people are using e-mail for is to be done through fact-to-face conversations or telephone."

His thinking is that in a service business like ours, time spent on e-mail is time not spent with clients and customers. Real-time conversations take some time too, but they can actually be faster when you need some question cleared up, and it's easier to confirm that you understand.

He's had some success with this. Over the following month, intraoffice e-mail was greatly reduced, though not eliminated.

And now I'm wondering why this idea couldn't work in almost any collocated corporate environment.

Of course, we need a leader who can make it happen. Hey, whatever happened to that guy who managed to escape that crushing boulder in the movies? I think he still has his whip.

Tom Barnett is a freelance writer on IT management topics as well as a program director for a large Midwestern corporation. He can be reached at tom.barnett@earthlink.net.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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