Email bankrupt

I was speaking with a corporate someone yesterday who knows someone that's given up email entirely and insists that all internal communication happen on blogs and social networking sites. Not that this, by itself, is all that unusual. Gen-Yers have been ditching email for ages, apparently.

What is interesting in this case is the individual involved works for a large corporation. He's basically declared himself unavailable in the email environment, and hang the consequences.

There's no doubt that email is a noose around many people's necks. I have terrible trouble keeping up with mine myself. That's because I insist on reading every single email, even if I am on a CC line. I don't necessarily respond to every one of course, but looking at my email stats (from Xobni– a tool you must have), I do a response for about 60% of the mails I get.

Also according to Xobni (which has all my mail for the last 5 years), on average in July I get about 1600 new emails a month, from about 500 unique individuals.  So I'm writing about 960 emails to people in July. It works out to about 30 emails I have to write every day.

That's not so many compared to some people I know.

It is, however, a huge chunk of the day, since many need consideration and thought. You can't always flick-pass and file. And some of them trigger a pile of new emails before you can respond to the first one.

A cultural oddity of the bank is that we do back-to-back meetings, probably most days. So our email keeps piling up, and so many of us have resorted to fitting email processing into odd slots of the day.

I used to do mine on the Tube, attracting odd looks from everyone (I was the only one who ever opened a laptop on the tube!). But as I've just moved to Windsor (just outside London), I now do it on an air-conditioned over-ground train on the way to and from the office. I'm still getting odd looks, but at least it is more comfortable.

But back to the guy that's abandoned email altogether. I'm wondering how he is forcing all those other people to give up email to talk to him. Because I can tell you, I am so locked into my email tools and the systems I use, I simply would not move to blog commenting systems and social networks just to communicate with an individual when I can get to everyone else on email.

Forgive the hypocrisy from a blogger, but this is an individual that will simply be locked out of any decision process we undertake. Neither would he be invited to many meetings, which are also organised by email.

It is the corporate equivalent of going off to live in a cave and scratching in the ground for grubs.

No, any solution to the problem of email, must come from email itself, since so much of our corporate mechanic is now conducted in this medium. I use a few tools to help me: ClearContext is one, which knows how to score my inbox by importance (it deduces that from my use-behaviour) and helps with filing.

But when I look at my email, I notice only a small part of what arrives is actually communicating with people in an ad-hoc fashion, which is what email was designed for. The rest of it is doing business processes which have defaulted to the email platform because it easy and makes things look electronic.

It strikes me the answer to email overload is to find a way to elevate such emergent business process to actual business processes outside the email environment. Perhaps web forms with some basic workflow.

I am happy to use such tools to perform actionable activity. In fact, like most people, I prefer it. What I hate is having to do some manual process using email to put a veneer of electronic on it.

So it is convenient, isn't it, that the whole Gen-Y crowd who are dumping email are the same ones skilled in doing web pages and mashups. They can take all these things out of email – which they hate too – and make the work for the rest of us.

Update 1: Luis Saurez who is, in fact the person known by the corporate someone writes his comments here. Thanks for joining in Luis.

Update 2: Colin Henderson writes that to avoid meeting culture you should sack your assistant, and do everything yourself. I don't quite know if I will be getting rid of my assistant Lorraine, who regularly saves my life, but can understand his point of view.

12 Responses to“Email bankrupt”

  1. August 13, 2008 at 1:49 pm #

    Hi James! And that individual is me, Luis Suarez, who, for over six months, and counting, has been successfully moving away from corporate e-mail with a total reduction of 80% of e-mails received thus far. You can read much more about the whole thing over at my Internet blog: http://www.elsua.net/?s=giving+up+e-mail
    A couple of thoughts that came to mind while I was reading through your very well thought out blog post:
    – I still process and work with e-mail, but for one single scenario: 1:1 conversations of a sensitive / confidential nature that could probably have a better chance within e-mail. Every thing else goes outside the Inbox into open, public, and transparent social software tools.
    – Unfortunately, I still use e-mail to process calendar invites because there isn’t other way around it. No social software tool allows you to interact with them like e-mail does, so I don’t count those as pure e-mail. They are calendaring notices, not e-mail. You hardly interact with them. Just accept or decline.
    – Yes, indeed, part of my inspiration of getting started with this new reality have been the younger generations, who I have coached and mentored over the years while they have been working with their PhDs and I have learned so much from their interactions, openness, trustworthy mentality, no political connotations that I just couldn’t help ignore it any longer. I decided to jump in with both feet! And loving it every minute! It is amazing to see how they do it themselves and I don’t see a reason why we couldn’t either. That coming from a Gen Xer πŸ™‚
    – How do I do it? How do I convince my colleagues to use social software instead? Well, by educating them on how they can be more productive using social software. Many months ago I decided I prefer to spend 30 minutes, one hour with someone (Or a group of people) showing them how to make use of social networking tools than having to spend hours and hours trying to make sense of a threaded e-mail with over 30 replies, 15 different attachments of the same presentation with the same kind of outcome and not knowing where to start.
    This is something that companies should start realising about. Not everyone is good at collaboration and knowledge sharing. It is not a natural skill we all seem to have, specially when you have to make use of “tools” to get the job done. It is actually much better to invest in that training and education and then enjoy the payoffs over time. That’s how it has worked for me.
    – On the point of missing out on decisions… Time & experience of having worked for my company for over a decade have taught me that I do not need to be involved in ALL decisions, even if I want to. Some times I would want to, some others I want. Eventually, if it is a decision that will affect me in some sort of shape or form it will come around to me. And in most cases not even through e-mail, but through other traditional collaboration tools like IM or a phone call. Much faster! Which would also be crucial for that decision itself.
    One of the things that I am seeing, to wrap up, is how very very few people have challenged their mail inboxes over time. I bet that out of 10 e-mails that people may get, about one or two would *really* need to get through e-mail. The rest they could do without. So, yes, I agree with you that it has got to start within e-mail, but it’s got to start with how *you* process e-mails and how many of those interactions you really feel should go through e-mail. To me, only those 1:1 conversations I mentioned above. For the rest, everything OUT.
    Much better, I am sure! πŸ™‚ (People would no longer look at you with weird looks while on the train… heh)

  2. August 13, 2008 at 5:43 pm #

    It could also be that you’re important enough to force everyone around you to change to suit your habits πŸ˜€
    More seriously, I’ve seen big improvements from shifting issue tracking from emails to real bug tracking s/ware. Although documentation by email is *the worst* abuse.
    Internal email’s definitely overused, but I can’t imagine anyone I know abandoning it.

  3. August 13, 2008 at 8:26 pm #

    Hi Thomas, believe me, I am not as much important as anyone else. On the contrary, I am in the same need for collaboration and sharing knowledge as everyone else. The difference is that I take the time to educate people on what’s available out there for that particular task at hand, as opposed to just go the easy way out: i.e. sending an e-mail. Yes, may be too much time consuming initially, but once you have gone through the first round of education, training and coaching of your immediate team members you collaborate the most the payoffs are tremendous! That’s one of the reasons why my manager is so happy. He doesn’t get any e-mails from me. We find each other in various social networking tools and we share that way. One of them being Twitter, for instance. Sweet and short… 140 characters πŸ™‚

  4. August 14, 2008 at 7:00 am #

    Luis,
    I can see your point of view, and in fact imagine you live in some kind of nirvana state without all that email to deal with.
    What do you do about super-senior people who can just choose not to bother with you if you don’t work with them on email?

  5. August 14, 2008 at 10:08 am #

    When I first saw your post, James, I thought the guy was writing (or not writing, in this case) himself out of his job. Baby and bath water came to mind…
    However, I think I see what he’s getting it. Its a protest against email abuse – not the channel itself. Here’s my take.
    I use LinkedIn. It’s got a section where you can ask a question and a vast pool of global experts will respond to you. it’s amazing.
    However, what’s also amazing are the questions people ask that they could find the answer to themselves without involving other people. Here’s an example something asked this week:
    ” How do I do a selective screen capture on a Mac?”
    What the … The answer took 10 seconds on Google to answer. And I’m not that strong on Apple usage.
    The question simply didn’t need to be asked, but it still tied up 10 people – including me – responding to the stupid, useless sap. And probably a hundred more who wasted time reading it!
    He got 10 answers with the right answer – and me telling him I knew where to buy toilet paper but I didn’t intend to show him how to use it.
    So maybe Luis is suffering from today’s corporate hand-holding and fear culture. People ask stuff out of a combination of laziness, lack of confidence, attention seeking (look at me, I’m dealing with a big corporate problem and want you to know about it) or are simply crap at their job.
    Its a bit like calling someone over to look at your desk. “Hey man, look at all the papers on my desk. See how busy I am, what a great job I’m doing?”
    It’s a bit late for Luis, but maybe we ought to establish some email terms of engagement. Change email from the default to the exception.
    Maybe a scorecard system that after a while the sender’s email address carries a badge like McDonalds staff do – five stars for a good email user, zero stars for regularly sends stupid emails?
    Let’s shame the idiots into improving or better still (non) submission!

  6. August 14, 2008 at 1:09 pm #

    Hi James! Thanks for following up on this. RE: “What do you do about super-senior people who can just choose not to bother with you if you don’t work with them on email?“, must say that it has never happened in the over 6 months I have been doing this, but if it ever happens, I guess I would have to revert to the good old days of communication. No, not talking about e-mail, but pick up the phone and call the person & ask for the information. Or if the person is online and using IM I would be using that as well.
    And if worse comes to worse and I still get no answer from that person other than through e-mail… Well, what can I say, I will move on. Nowadays, most folks are no longer indispensable, regardless of how they may feel themselves. Plus collaboration and knowledge sharing is key to the business, so I am sure I would be able to find someone else, from my social networks and communities, who may be able to help out… But like I said, I haven’t bumped into that situation just yet. Whenever I do, I will let you know the outcome of it …

  7. August 14, 2008 at 1:15 pm #

    Great comments, Neil! I thoroughly enjoyed them and in a way you have hit the nail on the head with that comment on “today’s corporate hand-holding and fear culture”. I wish things were different, but apparently it is going to take a while still to move away from that. So, in a way, I surely did get started with this as a way to protest the e-mail abuse we all get exposed to over the course of time, and after six months I am now very happy to report that I live by “Change email from the default to the exception.”
    It’s been a while since I have sent out an e-mail to a bunch of folks, and, to be honest, I won’t. It would be the exception to the norm, which is open, public and transparent collaboration. The rest, we need to move on! And glad you are pointing the way out as well! πŸ™‚

  8. August 16, 2008 at 12:37 am #

    I don’t think that the particular form of messaging is important. People with Blackberries tend to use push-email as if they’re SMSs. Everyone at Morgan Stanley’s on a dozen mailing lists, and those lists behave much like discussion boards or newsgroups, even though they’re delivered as email. Some of the older financial blogs grew out of faxed newsletters, and the newer ones tend to keep that style. I don’t see any point in twitter, but I still change my msn nickname every day or so. Etc etc.
    The way a message is received by an audience is mostly a factor of the social convention around how a message is meant, whether a response it requested/required, etc. Technology just frames it. An email can be anything from a personal request to a public announcement.
    Or more coherently http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/BuildingCommunitieswithSo.html
    So without a change in social behaviour at IBM, Luis is really just getting a temporary respite until everyone else migrates! After that, “Facebook” will become just as annoying as email.

  9. August 16, 2008 at 9:39 am #

    “A cultural oddity of the bank is that we do back-to-back meetings, probably most days.”
    To be honest, I think it’s the meetings culture rather than the e-mail culture that’s the problem! Obviously, I’m seeing it as an outsider, but sometimes I find myself in meetings for our banking customers and I really do wonder how they find time to do any actual work, since they are often scheduled in meetings all day, without a break.

  10. August 17, 2008 at 1:26 am #

    I think you’ll find the people who do the actual work aren’t invited to the meetings πŸ™‚

  11. August 18, 2008 at 11:24 am #

    Hi Thomas! Enjoyed your comments above and your insights on the topic. Spot on, to be honest! Specially with this quote: “So without a change in social behaviour at IBM, Luis is really just getting a temporary respite until everyone else migrates! After that, “Facebook” will become just as annoying as email.” I must say that the change in social behaviour is happening. Slowly, but steadily, which is the main reason why week after week I am getting less and less e-mails at work. The key message there is that most folks are looking for new ways of interaction that would make them more productive, since e-mail doesn’t cut it anymore, whereas social software, as far as collaboration and knowledge sharing is concerned, may well be.
    Very shortly, I am going to be publishing a short survey shortly where I will be showing how there have been more folks than whatever you would have thought moving away from e-mail, after I got things going with this new reality of mine of giving up on corporate e-mail. I have been getting plenty of feedback from folks who are moving away from it, so feel it is now time to have taken things into the next level, and show this is just not me doing it any longer.
    And with regards to your comments on Facebook becoming as a result as annoying as e-mail, I don’t think it would happen. And main reason being that as a social networker *you* decide how, when, and with whom you would want to interact, something that with e-mail we have all lost control of it. So I doubt we would ever have that problem. It is along the same lines of RSS feed readers and e-mail.

  12. Anthony
    August 21, 2008 at 5:41 pm #

    Back to back meetings with everyone reading their email on their blackberries. Thats how my Bank operates πŸ™‚

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