Harbors in the Ocean of E-mail

As I’m writing this, the fourth most-blogged article from the New York Times website is "Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast," which appeared on June 14. It describes how knowledge workers at many high-tech firms feel as if they’re drowning in e-mail, and how bad habits and etiquette (like reflexively using the ‘reply to all’ option) contribute to the situation. The flood of e-mail has become such a concern that a working group called the Information Overload Research Group has been formed; members include Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Intel. 

E-mail is clearly ‘in the flow‘ for most modern knowledge workers. For many of them, it seems, it in fact is the flow. But so what?  Why is a lot of e-mail bad? If consequential things happen frequently and a knowledge worker needs to be aware of them in order to do her job, isn’t e-mail as good a vehicle as any to communicate these important developments?

According to the Times article, the problem with that argument is that a lot of e-mails actually aren’t very important. Research by Basex, a company that works at "the intersection of content, knowledge sharing, and collaboration within the enterprise," indicates that 28% of an info-workers day is spent on "interruptions by things that aren’t urgent or important, like unnecessary e-mail messages" and on recovering from these interruptions.

The problem with using e-mail for all communications is that it gets used for, well, all communications, even those that aren’t time-critical, personal, private, or salient. It also gets used to coordinate the multi-person creation of documents, presentations, and spreadsheets, a task at which it’s abysmal. I often ask audiences how many people execute multi-person collaborations by attaching the (hopefully) most recent version of a file to a group e-mail again and again. Most hands go up. I then ask how many people are happy with this mode of collaboration; very few hands remain in the air. 

The principal solutions proposed by the Times article are to shut off or otherwise walk away from email for some portion of the workday, and to rely more on face-to-face interactions. These are surely both good and perhaps even necessary ideas. Many of the writers I know go offline when they have to get serious work done (one of my colleagues goes so far as to unplug his wireless router when he needs to concentrate). Short email sabbaticals and more actual human contact are probably valuable for today’s deluged knowledge workers. 

And so are Enterprise 2.0 technologies like wikis, blogs, and social networking software, for several reasons. First, wikis and other group-level editing tools like ZohoGoogle Docs and Spreadsheets, and SocialCalc can be used to collaboratively build something without having to email attachments around to everyone. As this diagram popularized by Chris Rasmussen shows, working this way can save iterations, streamline work, and leave people happier in addition to reducing email volume. 

Second, E2.0 tools are good ones for project management; they can be used to track status and progress on action items, highlight new developments, and generally keep everyone on the same page. This only works, though, if everyone on the project agrees to use the 2.0 project management tools; if the boss still wants everything emailed to her and continues to use email for her updates, Enterprise 2.0 becomes above the flow rather than in it, and so likely increases interruptions rather than decreasing them. 

Finally, social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter let people tell their far-flung friends and colleagues what they’re up to without sending a single email, and also let them keep on top of their networks without opening the Inbox. These tools have a very interesting property; they let us dip into the stream of friends’ updates when it’s convenient for us, not when it’s convenient for the updater (as would be the case with email). These updates tend to be less time-critical and less private, and so don’t really belong in our personal Inboxes. Instead, they float by in an ether that we can jump into whenever we like. Leisa Reichelt calls this ability to dip at will into the lives of our friends and/or the workstreams of our colleagues ‘ambient intimacy,’ which I think is a lovely phrase.

The active blogger and social media user Luis Suarez recently launched an interesting experiment: he gave up on work e-mail. As he describes it, he "created a post in my internal blog where I was mentioning that from that day onwards I would not be answering any e-mails, nor write any e-mails myself either, but instead I would make the most out of social software tools and social computing, in general, to get in touch with other knowledge workers and collaborate further sharing and exchanging our knowledge over there." Suarez still uses e-mail for private communications where sensitive information is exchanged, but is trying hard to avoid e-mail otherwise. Initial results, he says, are that his emails have dropped off by as much as a factor of five (his blog posts to date on this experiment are here and here.).

I’d love to hear others’ experiences in this area. Are you drowning in e-mail? Or have you found ways to staunch the flow?  Are Enterprise 2.0 technologies helping at all? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.