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Email Is Broken

Posted @ 12:54 pm by Tim Ross | Category: SolutionSet, Technology | 1 Comment

Email is broken. The seeds of that thought were first planted at a previous job when, on my first day, I somehow managed to receive 47 emails, only 2 of which were addressed to me. Nobody knew who I was. I certainly wasn’t on any projects. How on earth was my attention already required for 45 pieces of content? Short answer? It wasn’t.

The feeling of “something’s wrong” was palpable. Maybe not quite at the “first time I saw ‘America’s Next Pussycat Doll’” level, but it was there. And that feeling has only grown as email as proliferated.

Before you ask, I’m not one of those anti-email luddites who spews Rooney-esque rants about the good ol’ days when we all wrote letters. But I’m not “Michael Scott – King of Email Forwards” either. I’m a moderate to active user who appreciates the original intent of email and the beautiful simplicity of its design (my dad cannot work an ATM, but the man can hit send/receive).

The simplicity of email, however, lies at the root of the problem. When drafting an email with the intention of collaboration, you have two bad choices:

Choice A) CC too many people, and you merely create distracting junk (that gets exacerbated with each “Reply All”).

Choice B) CC too few people, you risk of offending someone who was left off or forgetting to share information with a critical person.

Well, guess what wins in a CYA world? The answer lies in that big huge number in parenthesis next to the word “Inbox” in Outlook.

And the problem is worse than just productivity suck. Add a dash of “key knowledge living deep in the bowels of Exchange” with a pinch of “accelerated creation of information silos” and you have a recipe for a knowledge management nightmare.

But help is on the way. And I’m not talking about your garden variety email spam filtering and etiquette tips (although those help), I’m talking about collaboration platforms. Platforms that connect employees / customers / partners in ways email simply can’t.

Here at SolutionSet, we’ve helped a number of large enterprises adopt a variety of collaboration platforms to address this very problem. We’ve had particular success with Clearspace from Jive Software. Clearspace offers a huge suite of tools to enable customers to customize the platform while delivering all the core functionality required to evolve (reduce) email use.

1) Blogs. Blogs are great way for people to keep everyone posted on what they are working on, best practices they’ve identified, or problems they’ve encountered. Blogs help address the tuning problem. As the user, you control how much content you subscribe to and what you simply look at when you click around. Moreover, blogs encourage cross-department collaboration in ways email does not.

2) Discussions/Questions.  The most traditional collaborative web messaging tool remains one of the most useful.   You can start and engage on discussions around a variety of topics.  Perhaps the most useful application is posting questions (that are best addressed to a broad audience) and having the answers publicly viewable/searchable.  The individual posting the question can mark it as “answered” giving points to the user who provided the answer (particularly effective in support communities.)

3) Wikis. Wikis should be used when multiple parties are working together on a single piece of content that is intended to live on. The collaborative editing features work well for reference material, requirements documents, specifications, and FAQs. In many instances, a wiki is a better tool than either a threaded email or a Word doc.

4) Instant Messaging. Spontaneous 1:1 communication is often best conducted over IM. IM can help foster the “walk around” environment missing in today’s distributed offices without creating a cyclone of reply message threads. As a rule of thumb, kill any IM conversation that takes more than 1 minute and finish it via phone.

5) SMS.  My wife claims I only use SMS because I want to look young and am unwilling to use Grecian formula.  But SMS has a useful niche in enterprise collaboration.  SMS works better then email for very short 1:1 messages which require urgent notification and/or response.

Companies that take steps to embrace and continually refine collaboration will see both expected and unexpected benefits.  Companies should set measurable goals and should rollout a collaboration program by trying to change one behavior at a time.  Email will still have its place, but will return to its rightful place as a useful alternative to voicemails.

Now stop hitting Reply All!

One thought on “Email Is Broken

  1. Charlie Curtis says:

    In my job as a CIO, I’ve been working on tackling information overload with mixed results. My company, a professional services firm, suffers more than most because of a couple of infrastructure problems that arose from a couple of mergers.

    I’ve been trying to get my colleagues to acknowledge that attacking our information overload problem will improve our overall knowledge sharing collaboration efforts and also contribute to our bottom line. But some people here just don’t understand the extent of the problem.

    I just read about information overload awarenesss day and I’ve signed up our company as a participant and designated site – I hope this will get my point across to my colleagues and help them understand what we can do to improve our overall position relative to information overload. For others in my position (and I’m sure there are many of you) I encourage you to do the same, Information is available at

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