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.

Links

Courses

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Mapping the world with data Creative commons image Icon Locals and Tourists #1 (GTWA #2): London / CC BY-SA 2.0 under Creative-Commons license article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Mapping the world with data

Technology lets us remap our world better than ever before. Tony Hirst explores where the data comes from and what we might use it for.

Article
Laws for the Internet Age Creative commons image Icon Cory Doctorowlicensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 under Creative-Commons license article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Laws for the Internet Age

In this excerpt from his new book 'Information Doesn't Want To be Free: Laws for the Internet Age' Cory discusses 'Doctorow's First Law'.

Article
ICTs: Information Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

ICTs: Information

BBC News 24, Sky News, CNN we live in an era where news has become almost instantaneous. This free course, ICTs: Information, will look at how news is gathered and the technology used for its dissemination. You will also be encouraged to examine how information might be manipulated by questioning its reliability.

Free course
20 hrs
Will mobile music sound the blues for the music industry? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Will mobile music sound the blues for the music industry?

The music industry has struggled to keep up with the technological changes of recent years. Will they get it right with mobile music?

Article
What does Web 2.0 mean? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team video icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

What does Web 2.0 mean?

Author and journalist Charles Leadbeater reveals why he believes Web 2.0 is different from the 'old' web. The Open University's Magnus Ramage agrees.

Video
10 mins

Science, Maths & Technology 

Search Engines of the Future: The Pharos project

The volume of stored information is growing exponentially and an increasing share is audio-visual content. This content drives the demand for new services, making audio-visual search one of the major challenges for organisations and businesses today. The Open University is one of fifteen European partners in The Pharos project which aims to advance audio-visual search using an integrated search platform paradigm.

Video
10 mins
Succeeding in a digital world: Register your interest article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Succeeding in a digital world: Register your interest

Get a preview of our new course, Succeeding in a Digital World, and sign up to be notified when it launches.

Article
Password checker Creative commons image Icon Brian Geltner under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license activity icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Password checker

How solid is your password? Use our password checker to test how strong yours is.

Activity
Virtual worlds, real opportunities Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Dreamstime article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Virtual worlds, real opportunities

Businesses are using multiplayer online games to promote their products. Do these games have a useful potential for trialling new financial and social theories?

Article