Monday, October 1, 2012

Email is the biggest productivity drain for knowledge workers

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 the participants’ inboxes and cannot be accessed by those outside of a conversation, the information in an email duplicates like a virus for each recipient it is sent to, redundant attachments consume disk space, and having conversations and coordinating activities becomes messy as soon as two 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 out what is relevant and what context the email belongs to. 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 who is participating in an email conversation, for all email coversations we participate in! If we combine this with the phenomena of occupational spam, where there is no way for the recipient to opt out of some conversations she has been added to by the sender, the situation easily becomes unmanageable to many people and creates enormous amounts of waste in organizations.

I have illustrated the differences between what I call an "occupational spam culture" and an "opt-in culture" below.

In an opt-in culture, each and everyone can choose which conversations they want to participate in and contribute to – which most likely will be the ones where they can add most value and which they enjoy participating in. It implies that conversations are open by default and hosted on open platforms. If this is combined with ways of communicating where the sender applies the structure to the communication so that the recipients don’t have to, huge amounts of waste can be eliminated and people can use the time and energy that is freed for value-adding activities and seeking out situations where they can add value with their expertise.

The good news is that there are many proven solutions out there 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 to a specific context where it gets associated to 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 organizational 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 biproduct 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 and send them as emails, but by sending the messages to blogs instead of to lists of email addresses they will put the information in the context where it belongs. Even if the other team members choose to subscribe to the blog via email (as an alternative to visiting the blog or subscribing to an RSS feed), the information will stay on the blog and be available to those who might need it. Once the receivers have read the information, they could delete their emails and still be confident that they can find the information on the blog. In other words, there is no need to spend time organizing those emails in folders in their email client to simplify re-finding the information. They could just visit the blog to browse or search it, or even find it using the enterprise search. Should they choose to comment on the information that was posted on the blog, why not do it on the blog instead where everybody can see who has commented and what, instead of creating numerous messy email threads using reply all?

If it is this simple, and it really is, then what are you waiting for? (ok, there's on part that is hard, and that is making people change their habits)


  1. Great hint and clarification of the role of e-mail.

    Though, one thing that makes my head still ache is "management communication", i.e. messages and documents that (some managers deliberately feel they) must not be disclosed to anyone in the organization. E.g. salary discussions or decisions on distribution of power (roles) in the organization.

    How can we cope with that? Is 100% transparency possible or even "okay"? What is okay to be confidential? How cope with it with respect to optimal collaboration and communication?

  2. @Peterino I think the answer to this is a simple test - if the conversation is private, or 1 to 1, or at most 1 to a few, then use email. For everything else, use a social business tool.

    There is this false belief in organisations that emails are contracts or ways of shifting responsibility - they are not, and never have been. For the examples you mention I still see the value of a collaborative tool - in the IBM Connections world it would be a restricted readership Community.

  3. @Oscar thanks for the sketch, always good to have a visual representation of an idea.
    I like stealth blogging idea too, as I would hope most people now are familiar with email-based group mailing lists. Somewhat an old technology, but a familiar and comfortable one for all its faults. I would expect that over time the email-bloggers will migrate to the collaboration platform as the limitations of the mailing list become apparent.