The average number of corporate e-mails sent and received per person is expected to reach over 228 a day by 2010. Businesses lose $650 billion annually in productivity due to unnecessary e-mail interruptions. The problem is fundamental to what otherwise makes this technology great. The problem is largely behavioral, and new practices and technologies are emerging to solve it.
From a user’s point of view, e-mail is what you could call a Push medium. Beyond your control, anyone can push an e-mail into your inbox at near-zero cost. By contrast, new Web 2.0 mediums emphasize Pull. You choose who or what you want to subscribe to, pull information to you when you want it, and unsubscribe when you want.
Ideally, we would use Push mediums for directed, private or time-sensitive communication, and use Pull for less formal, more public or less urgent communication. The point is, now there is a choice-so long as you can gain agreement on which to use for what and how to use it.
Commercial e-mail spam filters and virus protection do a reasonable job. What remains is behavioral-not how e-mail works but how we work with it. Roughly 30 percent of e-mail is “occupational spam,” characterized by excessive Cc, Reply-to-All and Bcc use-we are stretching e-mail into a broadcast medium.
But there are effective ways to decrease e-mail volume by 30 percent and move this communication from e-mail (best for one-to-one or one-to-few) to collaborative work spaces (designed for one-to-many or many-to-many communication). The following are the top five tactics for moving e-mail communication to efficient and effective collaboration:
Tactic No. 1: Gain agreement on internal e-mail practices
Within your organization, review your current e-mail habits. Consider gaining new agreements on the formality, tone, brevity, distribution, responsiveness and timing of messages. Then, try bold experiments such as “E-mail Free Fridays”-not necessarily because they will work, but for learning what could work and raising awareness of the cost of e-mail.
Or company management might try to help to heighten awareness of work/life balance issues by taking a break themselves from being always on and using mobile e-mail. For example, the CEO, the COO and the Publisher/CRO of one company have created a weekend program experiment they call “Take 48.” The three senior leaders of the company have agreed to not send a single e-mail to any member of the team from 6p.m. on Friday to 6p.m. on Sunday. (But there’s nothing in the rules saying they can’t DO e-mail over the weekend-just that they can’t SEND it during the weekend.)
Move Group E-mail to Collaborative Work Spaces
Tactic No. 2: Move group e-mail to collaborative work spaces
With the significant enterprise social software solutions available on the market today, you can identify group uses of e-mail and move them to private work spaces. This creates a spam and noise-free environment for the team to focus. Different work spaces with different features can accomplish different goals.
For example, create one work space where your team can hold less formal, blog-style conversations and general context sharing. Google, for example, has its employees blog weekly in lieu of more formal reporting; this makes what people have been working on searchable by all. Or try creating a more structured project work space with a process for archiving them at the end of the project.
Tactic No. 3: Establish public protocols when possible
For communicating with the outside world, establish protocols such as preferred methods of contact and escalation. As you communicate, be clear about how private and redistributable an e-mail is. For example, I include this line in my signature:
“This e-mail is: [ ] bloggable [ x ] ask first [ ] private.”
Tactic No. 4: Reply to e-mail in public
Doc Searls, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual,” once described blogging as “replying to my e-mails in public.”
Now, you can’t do that with every e-mail you get. But for the ones you can, you create an asset as a result. And, while not everyone will blog, there are other more public ways to share when appropriate.
Leverage Special Purpose Social Software
Tactic No. 5: Leverage special purpose social software
There are bloggers who are replacing e-mail with social software successfully. It’s not just about reducing e-mail, but utilizing Web sites for communication efficiency and effectiveness (because of their focused structure). LinkedIn is a better tool for referring new contacts. Dopplr is great for sharing travel plans. Flickr for sharing photos. Delicious for links.
As with private work spaces, these Web sites might create new, separate inboxes for you to manage. Ironically, for those who don’t use advanced tools such as dashboards and newsreaders, the e-mail inbox becomes a place that notifies you about communications in other places that you go to for good reason. And that lets e-mail stick to what it does best.
I don’t take the extreme position that e-mail is wholly unproductive. The issue isn’t the cost of e-mails but how to increase employees’ return by working together better. A major contributor to e-mail overload is broken business processes. When an environment changes, business processes fail to adapt, causing exceptions. We don’t have good tools and practices for resolving these exceptions, let alone learning from how we resolved them so we can keep inputs, processes and outputs up to date. Instead, we follow the path of least resistance, through e-mail.
Learning is lost in private inboxes. In their book “The Only Sustainable Edge: Why Business Strategy Depends on Productive Friction and Dynamic Specialization,” co-authors John Hagel III and John Seely Brown not only identify that most employee time is not spent executing process, but handling exceptions to process-and those exceptions are the greatest sustainable opportunity for innovation and adapting to turbulent markets.
Eugene Eric Kim, founder and executive director of a think tank devoted to improving collaboration and knowledge management, says there is “no such thing as collaboration without a shared goal.” With every group with which you regularly communicate, one of your goals should be to increase communications efficiency and effectiveness.
Without these shared goals and practices, behavior will not change. And with the new technologies available today, you have the opportunity to transform communication habits into collaborative best practices.
Ross is a former advisor to the Office of the President of Estonia and began his career in the non-profit sector. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California at Los Angeles and completed the Management Development for Entrepreneurs (MDE) program of the Anderson School of Business. A noted blogger and industry expert, Ross is a serial and social entrepreneur. He blogs at http://ross.typepad.com. He can also be reached at [email protected].