Controlling the email monster

Intriguing account by Luis Suarez of IBM…

EARLIER this year, I became tired of my usual morning ritual of spending hours catching up on e-mail. So I did something drastic to take back control of my productivity.

I stopped using e-mail most of the time. I quickly realized that the more messages you answer, the more messages you generate in return. It becomes a vicious cycle. By trying hard to stop the cycle, I cut the number of e-mails that I receive by 80 percent in a single week.

It’s not that I stopped communicating; I just communicated in different and more productive ways. Instead of responding individually to messages that arrived in my in-box, I started to use more social networking tools, like instant messaging, blogs and wikis, among many others. I also started to use the telephone much more than I did before, which has the added advantage of being a more personal form of interaction…

This strikes a chord. I’ve found that the email system at my day job has become positively dysfunctional (I’m cc’d on everything, it seems), so I’ve had to resort to giving selected colleagues a different address, which ensures that anything from them comes straight through to my phone. But of course this has the disadvantage that I may miss ‘important’ messages from other people in the organisation — who then get shirty because I don’t appear to be paying due attention to them!

I’ve taken to using Skype a lot — mainly for IM and occasional phone conferencing. I’ve also found Twitter useful — and its unreliability correspondingly infuriating. So I often fall back on SMS. My experience with wikis has been mixed — most of my colleagues seem reluctant to use them.

The bottom line, though, is that organisational email has to be brought back under control. Someone once told me that one of the big supermarket chains — it may be ASDA — has a policy in its open-plan HQ that when anyone’s on email they have to wear a red baseball cap. It’s wacky, but might just work.

The mess that is organisational email is actually a symptom of the failure of ICT systems to provide software services that workers really need. Why, for example, do you find that office workers have email inboxes with thousands of messages in them? Answer: because it gives them an electronic filing system that they can use. So instead of being an indicator of how hopeless people are at managing ICT, overflowing inboxes are actually a measure of how ingenious humans are when faced with useless technology.