I'll always remember as a child a very old gentleman in Manchester, Northern England telling me about the Dickensian office he worked in during his youth - everyone sat in rows at desks equipped with ink wells and quills, writing and copying documents. The boss sat with a bullhorn on an overview platform and shouted at anyone who stopped working. I don't think they had floggings but it wouldn't surprise me!
In this Edwardian era England the mail would arrive two or three times a day and immediately trigger a burst of activity: stuff would arrive that needed dealing with and other stuff had to go out without smudging the ink (or your starched cuffs) when you put it in the envelope.
All this sounds quaint, crazy and harsh now but amazingly the more things change the more they remain the same.
Most office workers struggle to deal with a daily deluge of email. Get ill or take a break and you'll have to run extra fast up the metaphorical down escalator to catch up when you return to work...processing the backlog before getting back to your usual task of spending hours in your cubicle reacting to your email client between meetings.
It's a uniquely fair problem throughout the enterprise - senior executives are as frightened of falling behind and missing that vital message that's hidden amongst dozens of iterations of linear discussions and other cruft as the intern is.
All email looks the same, yet some content is critical, most others a waste of time and space. The Edwardians were actually ahead on this one over a hundred years ago, with different sizes and shapes of messages and packages. You can see the difference today at your mailbox between the birthday card from your Grandma and the bill from the utility company and react differently to each.
With email, your mission - should you chose to accept it, is to wade through identical looking titles in your client every day while reacting like Pavlov's dog to certain stimuli.
Living on your reflexes like this is neither productive or good for your health. For those working on projects approaching deadlines 'email stress' gets much worse, with the remaining hours clogged with greater email flow that prevents them from getting across the finish line unless they devote even more time to processing and sorting email iterations.
Currently enterprises, despite being split into different divisions, usually have one big 'post office' which processes and distributes all email. Postal mail doesn't scale on a personal level, and neither does email. We all have a processing breaking point.
This is an intractable problem because many of us are hard wired to work at this digital coal face - for some people this is literally what their job is.
There is a better way
Collaboration 2.0 promises much for the future, and we are at the dawn of a new era of greater productivity and more enjoyable work for those that think through adoption for their specific business case. Using modern Web 2.0 technologies it is possible to equip project teams with powerful contextual systems that save time and effort even as they enable faster processes.
I say possible because what is frequently underestimated is breaking the habits of literally hundreds of years of postal and electronic mail. Attempting to replace or augment this with open collaboration in a centralized environment requires more than installing software and seeing who shows up.
Networks are full of wikis and other online spaces that were used for 10 days 2 years ago by baffled untrained users who didn't understand their utility or context and didn't have time to use them anyway because ironically they were falling behind on their email.
Change management, or to put it more simply telling people how to work together using modern tools, is essential to break people free from the bondage of email.
Those Edwardian offices I mentioned earlier were probably transformed by the arrival of the telephone. Some organizations in that era used the new technology as a core part of their management strategy and tactics and streaked ahead to massive efficiencies and resulting competitive advantage. Others increased employee workload to include endless telephone answering and reaction as well as their existing mail processing chores.
I believe modern online collaboration technology will similarly transform those businesses who understand and embrace well thought through methodologies. Those who adopt ad hoc uptake are going to have a more difficult and expensive time and perpetuate what in retrospect will seem like Keystone Cops reactive management.