A word in the beginning: this post is not about condemning email and its usage but on how to increase the efficiency of collaboration by utilizing and leveraging all tools and platforms a modern workplace has including Networking, Collaboration, Conferencing, Instant Messaging. For many use cases email is the tool of choice and for sure it will remain to be for quite a while.
When I started at in my current department I was handed over an ongoing project by a colleague. She went to her mailbox, selected with a few clicks all mails associated to that project and sent me the result as one big email. I was supposed to read all these historical conversations bottom-up. After trying this for a while I ended up just poking around in this mess using the built in search whenever I needed some information that could be issued in a search query …
Email is a communication form which is now 40 years old (the term “email” was formed 30 years ago). The only big change to that technology happened when attachments were introduced 20 years ago.
For many of us the email client has become the tool we open first in the morning and check several times a day. Notifications about incoming email come in and interrupt our work. The number of unread emails seems to increase steadily.
We misuse our mailbox for our personal Document Management, Knowledge Management, Project and Task-Management.
Usually no one else has access to the information we collect and if someone would have, she would likely not be able to source the information in it without understanding the structure (if any) in which it was stored.
We assign tasks per email in a fire-and-forget mode. Since we can always expect an answer, which is an implicit rule in emailing, we can forget requests until the recipients reply / react. When something goes wrong (and always something goes wrong) we can pull the email out (we usually even don’t have to) and say: “I informed you in time that something could go wrong” / “I told you to take care 2 weeks ago” / “I asked but you didn’t answer”.
We discuss content and send office documents back and forth receiving multiple copies of multiple versions. Discussions are fragmented over several emails, this works more or less as long as there is a sequential discussion. When the discussion branches and several participants reply to different aspects of a discussion it gets time consuming to put the conversation in a sequential order with clear causalities. There is no easy way to include colleagues who joined the conversation later.
In many emails, if we have a look at the net information which is actually included we find that this is only a minor part compared to what is added by headers and footers and the repetition of the complete history of the email conversation.
What is wrong with email?
“Email is a ruthless delegation machine & your daily to-do list imposed by others. (Luis Suarez, @elsua) Just send an action to someone, cc: her Supervisor and it is extremely difficult for that person to not take that action. Asking someone face to take an action is sometimes not as easy.”
Information is private (closed team collaboration). Knowledge is hidden.The information contained in emails is restricted by default. People who might need this information have no access and even worse: they sometimes don’t even know that it exists. Adding recipients later often leads to the mess described above. Information is not available when colleagues are on vacation, signoff or retire.’
Recipients have to be chosen in advance. As a result: often too few or too many or wrong recipients are chosen. Emails and recipient lists once sent are neither updateable nor adaptable later
Attachments blow up mail size and are costly. Multiple copies where is is unclear which is the valid (latest) version
Inefficient for discussions. Sometimes you have to open a series of emails to follow up a discussion. Often you have to scroll a long way down to the end in order rollup the discussion and hope the discussion hasn’t branched in between.
Where is email useful?
When sending emails you can rely on a “Contract”. Following an unwritten law the recipient is supposed to either take notice of an information, or to take responsibility for an action (in many cases only to return information). In any other case she is supposed to reply to you stating why she does not handle the mail in the way you expect. In the latter case she will choose to reply to all.
Since the delivery (at least within the company) is guaranteed, mails often have also a documentary character. Sending an information or task via email documents the transaction including the content of the mail, the timestamp and the recipient(s) of a mail. At a later point in time the sender can use the copy of the mail in his mailbox as an evidence.
In one-two-one private conversations email is always a good choice. It is one of the strength of email to limit the distribution of an email to a closed circle. If necessary the conversation can even be encrypted.
Calendaring, scheduling meetings and sending/accepting invites is a bonus email systems offer. For this purpose they are highly specialized and can not easily be replaced by other tools without losing comfort and reliability.
Are you ready to give it a try?
- Do not reply to email with email (@elsua). Every reply provokes another reply. Instead inform the sender using a different channel. Talk to her personally, send a reply via chat or post the answer to her or your board or to a common collaboration space, like a community. Doing this reduces the email traffic and helps our organization to adopt a new way of collaboration step by step. An answer to an email posted publicly (where applicable) can also be useful to colleagues who were not on the initial scope of the email
- Move all distribution lists that are not confidential to blogs/communities.
- Between the senders and recipients of information posted, optionally agree upon a common set of tags, that senders attach to each posting (files, blog entries, bookmarks, …).
This requires some discipline on both adding and subscribing (to) the rights tags. The advantage is that recipients can choose what pieces of information the want to receive (they subscribe to) and to change these subscription over time as their responsibilities, projects or organizational position changes.
- Give all project teams a closed group and encourage them to „work out loud“.
- Discourage emailing documents. They should all go into a shared space.
- Check the appropriateness / necessity of CCs/BCCs whenever you send an email or us the “reply all” button. Consider that many recipients due to their load just ignore emails (some of the even by automated rule) that does not contain their names in the to: line.
- Encourage anything that needs a CC to go into a social network blog or discussion board.
- Encourage people to answer questions that they receive through any channel in a blog post.
- For confidential information (and that should be done carefully), for scheduling, for personal notes and for accepting email from external contacts, some of which should be stored centrally to a collaboration space and link from there.
- Consider setting an autoanswer in your mailbox or an extension to your email footer hinting (internal) senders how to communicate with you alternatively in order to optimize the collaboration.
- Check which replacements are available in your environment by Use Case.
- Use / stay with specialized tools like Document Management, Knowledge Management, Project and Task-Management.
Any Questions? Just reply to this blog post.
Thoughts which aren’t my own are stolen with pride from: