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8/23/2006
05:35 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Eaten By The E-Mail Monster

E-mail has gotten to be downright impossible. It causes so many problems--lost productivity, infrastructure costs, legal liability--that we should just get rid of it. It's a waste of time and resources, and it's just likely to get us all sued. And yet we can't afford to get rid of it. It's what we use to stay in touch. If we didn't have e-mail, we'd be isolated from business communications. Like the old barroom saying goes: Can't live with it. Can't live without it.

E-mail has gotten to be downright impossible. It causes so many problems--lost productivity, infrastructure costs, legal liability--that we should just get rid of it. It's a waste of time and resources, and it's just likely to get us all sued.

And yet we can't afford to get rid of it. It's what we use to stay in touch. If we didn't have e-mail, we'd be isolated from business communications.

Like the old barroom saying goes: Can't live with it. Can't live without it.

Paul McDougall and Elena Malykhina lay out the problem in one of our feature stories this week.

The most visible problem is the time spent by individual workers reading and managing e-mail. A typical office worker gets 100 to 300 or more messages every day.

But that's just the beginning of the problem. Paul and Elena describe how companies like AIM Healthcare and Penske Truck Leasing are struggling with the burden of supporting thousands of e-mail users.

Paul and Elena also describe some well-known e-mail fiascoes: "There's the embarrassing case of Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher, axed last year after e-mails revealed an affair with a female executive at the company. Or Frank Quattrone, the former Credit Suisse banker who was barred in 2004 from the securities industry after e-mail revealed he tried to cover up his dubious investment practices. Morgan Stanley, fined millions of dollars for its inability to manage e-mail in compliance with Securities and Exchange Commission orders, is now tied up in a $10 million lawsuit filed by a former Morgan Stanley IT exec who claims he was fired for, among other things, discovering unethical e-mails from other execs in the company's bloated archive."

E-mail requires huge infrastructure costs: bandwidth, servers, and staff to support it. E-mail needs to be screened for spam and viruses, and even with that screening e-mail is still a sewer of security problems: Spanish prisoner rackets, pump-and-dump stock come-ons, bank fraud, and other scams that used to be practiced in saloons now take place online. TechWeb writer Gregg Keizer has some tips on e-mail security.

And e-mail needs to be archived. Regulations require it. E-mail messages have become a routine part of the legal discovery process--21% of companies received subpoenas for e-mail and instant message records, according to a study conducted two years ago by the American Management Association and ePolicy Institute.

Microsoft and IBM plan updates to their respective Exchange and Lotus e-mail platforms to help organizations keep their e-mail under control. That should help IT managers, but it won't do much to help regain worker productivity lost to e-mail.

Paul and Elena's article struck close to home when I read it; e-mail is certainly a big problem for me. I'm based in California, but the overwhelming majority of the people I work with are on the East Coast, which means that by the time I come in to work, they've already been at their desks for hours, cranking out e-mail the whole time. By the time I come in to work, I already have 50 to 75 unread messages in my in-box, and that's every single business day.

I recently returned from two weeks' vacation, and during that time I mostly avoided checking e-mail on my business account. The result: I came back from vacation to a whopping 1,800 unread messages. Most of that proved to be spam, viruses, bulk mail, and e-mail that had become completely obsolete in the days since it was sent. Those could be deleted or marked as read with a single keystroke. But that still left me with 600 messages that had to be read carefully, many of which required a response.

It took me a week to catch up with all that, and during that time I felt off balance, behind the times, and nervous that I was about to step into a disaster, that I'd fail to fall in line with a decision that had been discussed and made in e-mail while I was gone.

Most people I know check e-mail every day or so on vacation, if for no other reason than to keep from falling behind. I've done that myself in the past--and after this month's drastic experience, I may do it again next time I have extended time off.

Managing e-mail overload is a favorite topic on some of the lifehacking blogs I read--these are blogs devoted to personal productivity, career advancement, and lifestyle improvement, written by and for self-described geeks. Merlin Mann has a good series called "InBox Zero" at his blog, 43Folders. It includes a quote from Lucas Jackson. When was the last time you got tech advice from Cool Hand Luke?

Gina Trapani at Lifehacker advises: Never check e-mail first thing in the morning, organize your e-mail in just three mailboxes, and maintain some essential rules on incoming mail for filtering useful mail from low-priority messages.

Finally, journalist Jeffrey Zaslow weighs in with a bunch of tips on keeping on top of e-mail.

Ironically, I received 26 e-mail messages during the time it took me to compose the first draft of this message. After that, I began to have system and network problems. The result: I was unable to access business mail for more than three hours, smack in the middle of a workday. Just as I was starting to twitch from e-mail withdrawal, I managed to get back in to find 45 unread messages waiting for me.

How do you keep up with e-mail on an individual level? And how does your organization manage the overwhelming e-mail problem?

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