NPR is running a nice series this week on the trials and tribulations of email. Specifically, the series is addressing how many emails we receive and the distractions that email presents to most workers. The show has also profiled a couple of software firms that are building software solutions to improve email management and filtering - including one today that creates for all intents and purposes an email budget. What were once virtues are now vices.
To add more comedy to an already somewhat tragic situation, IBM, Microsoft, Google and other large firms are teaming up to study information overload. The people who brought you, respectively, PROFS (an early mainframe messaging system) and Lotus Notes, Outlook, Exchange and Hotmail, and Gmail, are banding together to research ways to reduce your inbox load.
There are a number of problems with email, most of them brought on by a couple of facts:
- While most of us find it fashionable to complain about email "interrupting" our work, it is often more fun and exciting to see what new emails we have and respond to those, rather than to manage our email as simply another input to the work we have. Most of us prefer to be interrupted.
- It costs nothing to send an email, so we overly insure ourselves by sending email to anyone about anything. And, since receiving a lot of emails is evidence that you are important, once you are on a "CC" list, it is difficult to ask to be removed. We've reached the point where transaction volume in an email box or voice mail box is evidence of busyness and importance.
- There's no governance on who should receive a message, and in our communication crazed culture we believe everyone should be witness to our brilliance. Imagine the thinking that would be required if we were forced to type out each message by hand, fold and seal the message in an envelope and address and stamp the message. Would we so carelessly copy "all" in that case?
- There are no really good ways as a reader to determine what's important to the reader in the list of emails. There are solutions that allow the sender to determine the "value" of the message, but his or her value may be dramatically different than mine. Also, what's important today, in the midst of a firestorm with one customer, may be very lower priority tomorrow. Most email management systems are rather "dumb" in this regard. What's important to the recipient depends on their state of mind, their tasks for the moment, their needs for critical information, and a host of other "in the moment" aspects that email management systems can't understand or control.
We have met the enemy, and he is us. Until we, the senders and readers of email, decide to take a more practical and honest approach about reading and sending email, all the study in the world, and all the new software gadgets to manage email will only compound the problem.