Email is the enemy

Email is the enemy

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Collaboration

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.

Topic: Collaboration


Oliver Marks leads the Global Digital Enterprise Team at HP, having previously provided seasoned independent consulting guidance to companies on effective planning of business strategy, tactics, technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models that make best use of modern collaborative and social networking tools to achieve their business goals.

These are Oliver's views and not those of his employer HP.

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  • Email flow

    It's so true, we all wade through so much rubbish in our
    day that it eats away our real time.

    If my "Send new Mail" button had a, "give 'em a quick
    buzz" button next to it, it would help enormously,
    - I'd realise that a phone call would be quicker for both
    of us
    - I'd then realise that I probably already knew the answer
    - I'd get on with my work


    Also, I do like your parallel with the current mail system,
    you know pretty much what's in a letter before you open it.

    Somehow as a modern parallel, in the same way that the
    telephone was a saving grace for the Edwardians, instant
    chat seems to be a saving grace for our office, along with
    using our phones.

    Dan Course :
    Thought Dan
    • I despise the phone

      Don't interrupt me while I'm busy on something else. I'll look at
      your email when I get a chance. I can guarantee your "crisis" isn't
      that important.

      As far as email goes, learn how to use rules.
  • RE: Email is the enemy

    I don't think any of this will really change until we build the knowledge work skills that go along with it. The skills gap is large and growing.
  • Watch out for JAWS

    JAWS stands for "Just another Web Site". In this context I am talking about the propensity for corporations to create web sites for each department, project and club. Unlike email that is in your face and you CAN react to it, JAWS is insidious as you HAVE TO KNOW the web site exists.

    This is the "Fire and Forget" of the "publishing" world. A department needs to publish where to go, what to do, who to talk to information - so they put it on their website. DONE! Now if you need to get that information, how do you find it? Search through old emails, send new emails to people you know requesting the site information, use the crappy corporate web search, etc. How efficient is that?

    I wonder who is more deluded, the person that thinks that his responsibility for getting the message out means changing the webpage - OR the exec that thinks that the best way to disseminate information in the company is by giving everyone a web page . . .
    Roger Ramjet
  • RE: Email is the enemy

    Agreed. I wrote a blog on this recently called "The Killer App That is Killing Us" ( It was also posted on the Enterprise 2.0 blog. Email is a problem as it so rooted in company culture, process and habit, that it is very hard to shake, no matter how good the collaboration tools become. We have we hope does the trick but it is a serious problem.
  • The real enemy

    wiki, website, sharepoint, etc.
    these are not liberating anyone
    at the end of the day the 'poor' Edwardian went home and that was that

    now we are supposed to be employees first and people second in a 24-7-365 world

    oh gosh, the wiki on the sharepoint server has an rss feed that automatically send something to my email which if not responded to in 15 minutes send a text message to my cell phone

    just because I'm in Duluth for my grandmother's funeral, that has nothing to do with it

    oh the poor Edwardians

  • We are servants

    We are servants to the mighty gods E-mail and Cell Phone and their harbingers Blackberry, Wiki and Instant Messenger.