E-Mail: Slippery Slope to Workplace Waste

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2002-09-09 Print this article Print

Peter Coffee: It's one thing to be looking for a needle in a haystack; it's another to be looking for an abnormal piece of hay. Our overflowing e-mail in-boxes make the haystack bigger every day, without doing anything to help us focus our attentio

Its one thing to be looking for a needle in a haystack; its another, far more difficult thing to be looking for an abnormal piece of hay. Our overflowing e-mail in-boxes make the haystack bigger every day, without doing anything to help us focus our attention where its needed. Sending e-mail has become the path of least resistance to what only looks like higher productivity. Why bother to lay out a Web page, or design a database query, when you can just blast out copies of a document or spreadsheet and ask for peoples replies? But this puts the onus on co-workers to figure out what they need to do, or to filter through mostly irrelevant information to find the areas where their expertise applies: Think about the total time that gets spent as a result.
Needs that ought to be met with threaded conversation forum tools, or with regularly updated intranet Web pages, are instead being poorly addressed by e-mail distribution lists. Instead of posting a document in a virtual project workspace, where every team member can see each others comments as theyre made, people are e-mailing individual copies of documents to each team member and inefficiently consolidating the replies. Wouldnt it make more sense to have a portal page listing documents needing comments, available in a shared virtual-whiteboard environment, sorted by deadline date and flagged to indicate who hasnt read them yet?
More than 10 years ago, I used to receive a weekly document listing milestone dates and deliverables for various stages of overlapping projects. I wrote a Rexx script that generated, for each person involved, a day-by-day list of what that person needed to produce, or what someone else should be producing and sending to that person by that day. I had people tell me that they lived by those lists. I was able to produce them because the initial document, generated by a database report tool, followed a completely predictable format. But when project schedules come via e-mail, they may be packaged as Word files, or spreadsheets, or plain-text messages: Theyre not only less useful, theyre less capable of being made more useful without far more labor than such transformations used to require. Its perverse to find myself using a computer 50 times as fast as the one I had 10 years ago to do more manual labor than before, searching a spreadsheet for occurrences of my name (and theyd all better be spelled correctly) instead of just running my finger down a column to see what my deliverables are for that day. The cost of using e-mail, in wasted network bandwidth and data storage and distraction of people from key tasks, is simply too much to bear. If theres one thing that we can afford to do with our limited IT budgets, its develop the simple and effective internal Web portals and task-oriented applications that can start to choke off the wasteful e-mail flood. Tell me how you develop your IT budget, and where next years money will go.
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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