Although email has many good sides, we shouldn’t be blind to the many problems that come with using email for work-related communication. Information is hidden in participants’ inboxes and cannot be accessed by those outside of a conversation. Information in an email duplicates like a virus for each recipient it is sent to, and redundant attachments consume disk space and become confused with more up-to-date version. We all know that co-ordinating activities becomes messy as soon as three or more people are involved.
But the one thing that has made email the biggest productivity drain for knowledge workers is the burden this style of communication puts on the recipient. It is up to the receiver, not the sender, to add structure to the communication and deal with the chaos in her inbox that this lack of communication structure leads to.
All sorts of emails end up in our inboxes with no good way to easily filter what is relevant or to understand the original context. It is entirely up to us as receivers to create filters and apply structure to the communication – and this has to be done by every individual participating in an email conversation! There’s often no way for a recipient to opt out of on-going conversations, which I call ‘occupational spam’, meaning we are CC’d into never-ending conversations we’re not interested in. Many find that email becomes unmanageable and creates enormous amounts of waste in organisations.
I have illustrated the differences between what I call an ‘occupational spam culture’ and an ‘opt-in culture’ below.
In an opt-in culture, everyone can choose which conversations they want to participate in – which most likely will be the ones where they can add value and find relevant and enjoyable. It implies that conversations are open by default and hosted on open platforms. Combine this with systems that make the sender apply structure to the communication so the recipeinten doesn’t have to, and huge amounts of waste can be eliminated.
The good news is that there are many such solutions that are just waiting to be adopted. For example, instead of communicating with your project team using email, you can communicate using a team blog. What you will do is to impose structure on the communication by sending the information with specific context where it gets associated twith previously communicated information and becomes available to anyone who has access to the blog. The information will not be buried in people’s inboxes, it does not need to be pushed to their inboxes if they don’t want it. From an organisational point of view, information and knowledge that can be of use by other people within the organization is captured and made available. Not as a separate activity, but as a by-product of a communication process.
Even people who are using email by habit can be ‘lured in’ to this kind of communication. Just don’t tell them they should start blogging. They can still write their messages in their email clients, but instead of sending the mail to their teammates they can send the mail to the relevant blog. The CMS then publishes the message as a blog article, embedded within the context of the project site / collaborative space. Team members can either browse at their leisure, or subscribe (via RSS) or even via email to be actively notified of the new message. It’s about opting-in.
Information that is published is avaualble to all those who might need it, unlike information within emails which is buried in individuals’ inboxes and archive folders.
Those who subscribe to the blog via email can delete the email version once they have read it, knowing they can find the information on the project blog. They don’t need to spend time organising their mail into folders.
Instead of long, messy email chains, observations, questions, and comments can be made directly beneath the blog article where everybody can see who has said what. Why hit ‘reply all’ when you can have an open conversation with the people most involved?
If it is this simple, and it really is, then what are you waiting for? (OK, there’s one part that is hard, and that is making people change their habits.)