The basic idea of email has remained essentially unchanged since the first networked message was sent in 1971. And while email is great for one-on-one, formal correspondence, there are far better tools for collaboration.Ryan Holmes
Email, a technology invented in the ’70s remains the core method of communication in 2015. Email volumes are increasing and this increases stress as messages of varying priorities arrive in an inbox. The arrival of a new message causes the recipient to stop their current task, read it, prioritize it, respond and then attempt to resume their original task. This cognitive context switching is a costly when repeated throughout the day.
In addition, email is an inherently private form of communication even though it usually contains non-private information. Critical business knowledge is trapped inside the inboxes of employees and then deleted once they move on. The resultant effect is ‘Corporate Amnesia’ where no one understands the reasoning behind decisions. The only solution is to either perform costly rework or establish the decision as unchallengeable (aka “It’s just how we do things here” syndrome).
The solution to this problem is to change communication in the enterprise from private to public. Public communication would allow both the decision and the process surrounding the decision to be recorded, archived and made searchable. Public discussion enables cross team collaboration as employees can contribute to ongoing conversations as they see the need.
Email is the de facto standard for communication in the enterprise but there are penalties in continuing to use this outdated model. The inbox is a generator of stress and frustration as we drown in information overload. To find anything, the onus is on the inbox owner to recall past conversations due to inferior search tools. Email chains that begin focused quickly expand to become unwieldy as conversation quality degrades. These chains eventually collapse and splinter into new email threads while the cycle begins all over again. The largest problem with email is through employee turnover. Critical business knowledge contained in their inboxes is permanently deleted. This results in “Enterprise Amnesia” over how the critical decisions were reached and causes the enterprise to slow down by redoing previously completed work.
Is this really the best form of communication inside the corporate firewall? We live in an increasingly connected world where roles and responsibilities are blurring and more people are involved in more projects. This means that volume of emails being sent will continue to increase. Is the technology designed to facilitate this required level of interaction?
In order to understand the poor fit of email, we first need to understand the properties of the technology being used.
Email is primarily a person to person private communication technology. It’s been expanded over time with features such as cc’s and forwarding but fundamentally, the core assumption is communication between two people. Response times to email are unbounded as it’s dependent on when the recipient gets notified of a new message, stops their current task, reads it and then finds time to respond.
All emails arrive into a single inbox folder regardless of the relevance of the message to the recipient. Emails can be marked as ‘urgent’ but this is quickly abused such that everything becomes urgent. Email clients can apply rules to automatically sort incoming messages into folders but this is generally a weak hack that only has to mis-route a single important email to lose all accrued benefit. Emails are only stored in the senders ‘sent mail’ folder and the receivers inbox. No one else is even aware of the existence of the contents of an email even though they may need to be. There is also no guarantee of secrecy as at any time either party can forward and email to someone else.
Every email is an independent unit, even though it may actually be a part of a long-lived thread with many responses. There’s nothing at the technology layer that binds these emails logically. Attempting to read an active email chain can be difficult as technical details, such as the header, are re-printed in the message body. This camouflages the content needlessly.
The Content of an Email
Email is being used as a the single communication transport for orthogonal content such as:
Hey Joe, I heard you have a hamster where did you buy him?
We are replacing the wheel on Friday
To: Dave, Rick, Jennifer
The hamster looks bored, how can we make him happy?
Has anyone seen the hamster?
Look at this funny hamster in a wheel.
The number are in and the hamster wheel spin 132,402 times last week.
Sally, please approve this request to install the new hamster wheel.
Please review the attached document of the design for the new hamster wheel.
Steve has left the company and we’re replacing him with the hamster.
As seen from the examples, email is a dumping ground for mixed content that varies in prioritization from the mundane to the extraordinary. It varies in criticality from disposable to indispensable. Should we really be mixing all this information and firing it at our unsuspecting recipients?
Email relies on knowing upfront who is interested in the content. This could be handled by a mailing list but then who maintains the list? If there’s no mailing list then the sender is required to aware of the interested parties. Is that feasible in a large organization?
Decisions made are buried in private email archives. What happens if a project needs to revisit a decision but neither party is still employed? The conversation would have been deleted and the rationale behind the decision needlessly lost.
The Cost of Unknown Prioritization
An inbox is a static location where a stream of information of various priorities arrives intended for a single recipient. Every email causes the same ‘new message’ notification pop-ups and increments the counter of unread items. This creates a pavlovian response to new emails as a source of stress. Do the recipient read it now or read it later? Is it urgent? Is a large team waiting on a response? Is it low priority FYI that can be read later?
The only way to answer those questions is to abandon their current task, read the email and internally prioritize it. This on-demand task switching can be costly to productivity. Mental models take time to be reconstructed once the information in email has been consumed. Ever felt close to being close to completion, get distracted and then spend time trying to remember where you were? How long does it take to get back into the flow? Now multiply this productivity loss by the number of emails received in a day. It’s a massive quantity of wasted productivity.
In order to mitigate this productivity loss, inbox management strategies have formed. There are ones that recommend limiting how often to check your mail, or encourage writing briefer responses. These are all band aids to the core issue that the inbox is a terrible way to manage communications of varying importance.
The Cost of Corporate Amnesia
There is a core conceptual difference between email over the internet and email inside the enterprise. When outside on the internet, the privacy of email communication is required. The internet is vast with billions of users with their own personal motivations. Random strangers, hackers and competitors shouldn’t be snooping into your conversations.
This contrasts with the environment found inside the corporate firewall. The number of users is small with employees focused on the common goal of enterprise success. This implies that the need for communication privacy should be the exception instead of the norm. When the goal is to encourage collaboration between resources with complementary skill sets then everyone needs access to the same information. It’s difficult to control this when the information is shared privately.
Needless privacy manifests itself into two forms of corporate amnesia: Information Duplication & Information Destruction.
In information duplication, the same questions will be repeatedly asked by different people over time. Unless someone involved in the previous chain remembers the duplicate conversation then worthless re-work will occur to answer questions that have already been answered. The larger the scope surrounding the question, the more wasted effort that will occur.
In information destruction, key questions/answers and decisions are erased from existence. This happens through employees turnover. Part of the offloading process is that the employees private email is deleted. Within that deletion is invaluable non-private information, but because it was stored in a private inbox, it’s gone forever. Teams tend to only document the final decision of an email chain but this only saves the output. There is just as much value in understanding the ‘why’ and ‘how’ a decision was reached. Too many times, this understanding is lost and without it the remaining team is frozen. They’ve lost the key resource and they lost that persons specific knowledge. They’re stuck because they don’t understand why a decision was reached and eventually the decision degrades into “that’s just how we do things here” which is the mantra of failed process.
The Cost of the Missing Recipient
The recipient list is the most critical component of an email. Great content sent to the wrong people is a waste of time. The problem is that the sender may not know who all the proper recipients are. To over compensate, the recipient list is expanded to include people who aren’t needed. These people are being notified of a new email, stopping their current task, checking their inboxes and then having to actively ignore the chain. The chain may have many responses over many days. There is no method to unsubscribe from email, creating an incredible drain on those resources.
Event worse, you may have an email thread that reached a decision and discover towards the end that a key resource missing. Attempting to add a user to email can be difficult if the responses are coming in quickly as the previous recipient list does not include that person. The other problem is that by the time the realization is made, decisions and attitudes have solidified. The new resource may feel pressured to not rock the boat and feel like they are compelled to accept a sub-optimal decision. Enterprise can’t afford to make sub-optimal decisions.
The Future of Communication
A new technology needs to be created. It should be based on a publish and subscribe model with a sprinkle of business relevant tags similar to twitter’s #hashtags. Everyone should be able to update the tags on messages to better identify the content contained inside. Employees will subscribe to a list of tags required for their job but they would also have the ability to subscribe to topics outside their current role that interest them. This will help to produce more well-rounded employees that better understand all the moving parts in the enterprise. Employees can self-prioritize these subscriptions and determine how they best would like to be notified when new information is available. Notification options should include: Instant Message, Phone (SMS or Push Notification), RSS Feeds or Digests made available Hourly, Daily or Weekly. There should be a solid mix of active and passive notification mechanisms to choose from.
Anyone should be able to browse and respond without subscribing via an interface similar to that of a typical threaded forum. The technology should be able to track who has received and read a particular message thread as senders need to be assured that their content is being consumed.
This system would allow the right people to be involved in the right conversations to result in the right decisions. These decisions would be permanently archived and easily searchable. Current and future employees could trace the ‘why’ behind critical decisions as needed. As information begins to flow freely the enterprise reap the rewards of on-the-fly cross collaboration.
Reducing the reliance on email requires a culture shift but there is little point in trying to make the elephant dance overnight because it will not be successful. The best way to tackle a large problem is to break it down into smaller problems and grow it further from a solid foundation.
For an enterprise looking progressively move into the future of communications, I would suggest identifying ‘no-email’ advocates and placing them on a smaller proof-of-concept project. The initial goal is to get all of the valuable decision-making process out of the inboxes to where it can be viewed, tracked and grow. Most forum software is a good enough start to meet this minimum requirement. The advocates need to be on the alert for rogue email threads and immediately direct the conversation back into the public forum.
The technologies used for communication in the enterprise must evolve like everything else. Are the same paper processes from the ’70s still in use? Why is something so critical like communication stagnant? Corporate communication must shift from private to public inside the corporate firewall. Firms that can enable easy collaboration between teams will have a substantial advantage over competitors that stick to the tired email model.
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