Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Email Production Line
Yesterday a conference company sent me an invitation that stated "our research shows that workers are now wasting up to 2 hours a day dealing with email". But isn't dealing with email itself the 'work'? Its like someone in a call-centre complaining they can never get anything done because the phone keeps ringing.

Overflowing in-boxes are not the real problem - they're just a symptom of the overall workload. Without the clarity of a hierarchy, we seem to spend ever more time consulting, informing and negotiating in work that has no well-defined process or stakeholders.

Some days I wonder if positional power ("Do it because I'm the boss") was such a bad thing. There was a dreadful reality TV show in the UK recently called "Hell's Kitchen", featuring the extremely authoritarian chef Gordon Ramsey. One element of his leadership was interesting though - whilst they were in the middle of service, there were no arguments, no challenges tolerated, as all the focus had to be on getting the food out. But after the restaurant closed, there was opportunity to reflect and discuss. I certainly didn't see anyone dealing with e-mails whilst the restaurant was open ;-)


Tony said...

> But isn't dealing with email itself the 'work'?

Yes. And no. I think that's a large part of the confusion around email and its effects and uses in business. Some people treat email as an information conduit (mistakenly believing that this is actually communication), while others use it as workflow or their "To Do" list.

I also think there are two other elements that play into email mismanagement - the first, most obvious one being the cc/bcc epidemic. The second, more subtle one - and more debilitating to work - is the idea that we can get "all" the information we want. Coming from times when information was restricted, many of us have responded to information access by subscribing to all sorts of things that have, at best, peripheral bearing on what we're doing. Yet we (or I, to be exact) sign up for newsletters, set up automatic googles - all so we can stay "in the loop" and all that arrives in our inboxes or newsfeeds.

That's when email gets in the way of the work.

[As an aside: A colleague interviewed John Seely Brown (possible inventor of email - there are others) on his retirement and asked "Any regrets at the end of a long and distinguished career?" "The cc button"]

Sam said...

Hi Tony
Many thanks for your comment and you're quite right that email can encourage us to disrupt our own work. Recent discussions on Personal KM (e.g. AOK) would say that knowledge workers need to get better at selecting what they need to know (though few are so focussed that they'd fully eliminate the merely interesting - including the funny pictures and pub trip times). There is still a place for being tuned in to what happens externally too e.g. to catch the discontinuities that can radically affect what you do.

Finally, I'm intrigued by your "mistakenly believing that this is actually communication" comment. My Corporate Communication colleagues would be surprised so please say more. Surely not all communication has to be 2-way. Doesn't radio hae a place in comms history?

Tony said...

Thanks Sam. My comment is a little on the semantic side - I distinguish between communication (the creation of real understanding and hence connection between people) and communications (which tends to be simply managing vehicles through which information is fed).

My experience is that email is about providing facts and information - often without any emotional content (essential to create connection between human beings) or any context (which calls into question the value of the information in the first place). That's not to say that email shouldn't be used - clearly it should - but not if you're about creating understanding, buy-in, value convergence, etc. How many times have you personally experienced an email that was misinterpreted or too impersonal?

Your point about radio is an interesting one - but there are a couple of crucial points about radio, in my experience (I once was a radio presenter and can assure you that sometimes it's a lonely job, particularly if you're not sure anyone's actually listening).

The first is that more often than not, it's a background medium - we're rarely actively listening to radio, but phasing in and out with it. So in terms of communication, it's not strong. With the exception of the Today programme, few politicians head for the radio first to get their messages across. The second point is that one of the great drives in radio is to broaden the feedback - whether it's through live competitions, texts, emails or phone-in programmes. Most peak-time shows also feature more than one presenter - as a way of combatting the single-voice-talking-to-itself syndrome. So while, the physical medium is only one-way, it's rarely used in isolation.

A long answer to a short question...