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Email Overload: Disease Or Symptom?

Email overload is a symptom of larger management dysfunctions.
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We all say we want less email. But, do we really mean it? I think we're saying: I want less irrelevance in my life. Much in the same way we complain about time-wasting meetings -- instead of focusing on creating fantastic and nimble work sessions -- I'm not sure we're focusing on the right problem.

Readers of my recent column on email overload noted that advances in technology and social media can fix the email glut problem. InformationWeek executive editor Lorna Garey points out that until social media gets federated, we'll continue to rely on email as a common ground for collaborators. Other readers also acknowledged that there are significant cultural changes needed beyond just turning off email notifications on social media platforms.

Vendors helpfully let me know about their inbox products, and they're impressive. For example, I'm pretty sure that I will start using SaneBox soon -- it is "importance-filtering" for the 21st century, taking the "priority inbox" one step further, with follow-up reminders, antispam-like mail summaries, and a system for deferring less important emails.

[ Read Google Releases Gmail 2.0 For iOS. ]

Mailbox App, with its organization and deferral system, also offers features that I want, because I yearn for its "inbox zero, daily."

This is all great stuff. But the most telling discussion point came from InformationWeek's John Foley, who wrote a cover story 10 years ago about personal information glut, the biggest culprit of which was, you guessed it, email. It's 10 years later and we're losing the struggle between incoming information and ways to handle that information.

Can we agree to stop the madness and train employees to reduce email burden? Well, we can, but it's distressing to see the sorts of draconian solutions that are proposed. No saying "thank you" over email! Days or specific times when email is prohibited! Have an email sent-item quota! Create an email perp wall! It smacks of the time I took a job and at least five employees told me of the "no laughing" rule of the old boss.

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I think email overload is simply a symptom of the larger dysfunctions in our organizations, the factory-like, "scientific" management touted by Max Weber that sounded good in the late 1800s. That management has allowed us to create larger and larger organizations. But now we need to ask whether huge organizations are in fact a desirable thing, and how we expect people to act human when we ask them to specialize like insects. These huge organizations create pain that create many bad things, including email burden.

Why do people send so many darn emails? They feel like they can grab attention. Even if their jobs are meaningless, they're creating something permanent when they create an email. They cover their butts by documenting every little thing. (The latest trend of folks CC'ing themselves makes me shudder every time I see it.)

Here's a thought experiment for you. Consider two people in the same room, one of whom works for a large multinational corporation, and one of whom works for a startup, and think about who has a higher email burden per capita, and why. "Stupid bureaucracy" is what most people came up with, as I played through this experiment with a number of folks.

Trevor Lohrbeer, a startup and decision support consultant and blogger, noted that CYA -- cover your a** -- doesn't happen at startups, because, "if you're a startup with less than 50 people, and someone's not working out, they get fired."

I'm not saying that we shouldn't provide guidance. IT has a key role in providing guidance. But we should provide guidance that addresses the problem, not exacerbates it. Let's invite employees at large organizations to be a part of the solution. I mostly like the guidance that is given at Email Charter: Respect recipients' time; slow or short is not rude; celebrate clarity; quash open-ended questions; slash surplus CCs; tighten the thread (meaning, get rid of the trail and summarize, or pick up the phone); let people know that they don't need to respond; and choose to spend less time doing email (which is very different from a quota).

But we also need to remember that we are treating symptoms, not the causes. To treat the cause of disengagement, which breeds the lonely "I'm here!" emails, leaders need to make employee engagement and meaningful work a priority, instead of simply enacting edicts about what types of behaviors and outcomes are needed.

To treat the root cause of CYA, focus more on learning how to create the right outcomes, and less on punishments for the wrong outcomes. To cut down on irrelevant email chatter, have more focused in-person interactions. To encourage thoughtful documentation of an agreed-upon plan instead of off-the-cuff emails, create more time in the project lifecycle instead of everything being "hurry up and wait."

Is this possible, or will we be having this same conversation again in another 10 years? The answer: Unless we reinvent the large organization, I think we will.