Science, Maths & Technology

Email: a square peg in a round hole

Updated Thursday 6th March 2008

Geoffrey Einon offers some useful advice for managing the tide of emails.

After using email for 15 years, in 1990 Donald Knuth, the eminent computational scientist, gave up reading and replying to email. His reason - he needed more uninterrupted time for his work. By all accounts this is a common feeling about email. Knuth’s solution, however, was not as draconian as it might appear. He wrote,

“I have a wonderful secretary who looks at the incoming mail and separates out anything that she knows I've been looking forward to seeing urgently. Everything else goes into a buffer storage area, which I empty periodically.”

Knuth’s solution to the ‘problem’ of email – to delegate it – isn’t available to most of us in such a complete solution. In her Four D's for Decision Making model, productivity expert Sally McGhee finds three more Ds to accompany delegate. She adds:

  • Do it (in less than two minutes)
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

In practice everyone uses her Four D’s model for email management in one shape or form – but McGhee’s message is that efficiency benefits do accrue from such systematic, daily practices. Her claim is that 50% of email can be deleted or filed, 30% delegated or completed in less than two minutes and 20% deferred for later completion.

Systematic strategies do help significantly in managing the email ‘problem’, but I also think that this example of fitting the person to the technology - rounding the square peg - is a tad short-sighted. Of course, if someone is having severe problems with email they should be encouraged to think about whether their aptitudes and skills match the demands of the work. Is the email problem just a symptom of a larger problem? In most cases, however, instead of blaming the individual it’s necessary to look at the role that the technology plays in creating individual problems. I’m not suggesting a luddite solution – there’s no going back from the obvious benefits of email – not even for one day a week. Rather, what is it about the implementation of email systems that creates the problems that users experience?

While spam is an irritation, the major issue within sizeable organisations is the carbon copy (CC) facility that, by all accounts, is heavily abused. Most complaints I’ve heard about email relate to the sheer volume of CC’d mail – and specifically to the practices of some people continually advertising their existence by broadcasting their thoughts more widely than the message requires.

While intelligent spam filters can minimise the external spam problem, there are more interesting ways of dealing with internal ‘spam’. One is to get the IT department to disable the CC facility – perhaps more easily said than done. More exciting is to engage in ‘guerrilla war’ with the CC- spammers. It’s easy to set up an automatic task that identifies the sender of a CC’d message and generates a standard reply – similar to the ‘Out of Office’ reply facility. One rather pompous automated reply that has produced results goes along the lines:

“Thank you for your CC’d message. In the interest of efficiency all my CC’d mail is diverted to a holding folder. If by the end of the day I have time to read your message I’ll do so. Otherwise the entire folder is deleted. If you think it’s important that I read your message, please send it to me directly. Thank you.”

Such guerrilla activities are more effective if done collectively by CC-spam sufferers.

Another approach is to ask what role CC-spammers think their communications play. Apart from attempts at self-aggrandisement, there are usually genuine attempts to involve others to facilitate collaboration. But, for collaborative working, is email the appropriate tool? Email works well for the individual and for mainly one-to-one communication. Communications such as “when will you have it done?” or “what do you think about X?” are well supported. But when you need to obtain and organise the contributions of several people, email is not the best choice.

For around twenty years, software which supports collaborative work through messaging has been available – all the while growing in usefulness and ease-of-use. The original system – Lotus Notes – dating back to 1984 is still available (now under the auspices of IBM). Microsoft has its Sharepoint system, which is designed to add a collaborative dimension to their Office suite. Some years ago, the Open Source Moodle system began to take a hold in Universities – an approach to collaboration that was giving ‘street cred’ by its adoption by the Open University. But, perhaps the most interesting approach is the recent offering from the ubiquitous Google called Google Sites. The feature of interest in Google Sites is it doesn’t require users to run their own servers to host the system - in contrast to the IBM, Microsoft and Moodle systems. Google Sites is accessed from the desktop using a web browser – with all the collaboration tools provided through the browser.

Solutions to the problems of email are many. If a goal is to make your life less frustrating, then there are many sources of advice on efficient email management strategies available on the worldwide web – and you can strike a personal blow for freedom from CC-spam by engaging in ‘guerrilla tactics’. If however, you are more interested in more effective working practices – using round pegs to fit in round holes - then using software specifically designed for supporting collaborative working is worth investigating.

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