Monday, February 16, 2009

Email Behaviour - the root of all evil?

I was scooting around the web the other day looking for new thought on ‘email-as-problem’ and came across this Forbes article from October 2008 which I missed the first time around. Ross Mayfield describes ‘Email Hell’ and does a reasonable job of essaying a bunch of well known tactics to get to grips with the problem. However, he misses the fundamental problem by a country mile.


It is the design of email clients which have cognitively patterned their users to perceive the communication technology we call email as ‘send-receive-file’ (the name of this blog strangely enough).

We figured out there are two aspects to email management in the modern age that need addressing.

Solving the problem before email hits your Inbox.

(2) Managing the activity that results after an email has actually hit your Inbox.

Dealing with the before issue is really all about well documented and debated first generation solutions which, in essence, involve:

(a) An enterprise-wide social contract as to how email technology should be used within an organisation.

This can be reflected in an Email Code of Conduct (one page, maybe 10 points) endorsed by the Board of Directors crafted after taking in the views of key corporate stakeholders and constituencies.

(b) Common sense.

The elements of the internal social contract are positively adopted by the individual and then incrementally extended beyond the walls of the enterprise; using;

(c) Simple software tools:

Such as appended signatures detailing how you wish to transact via email; auto-completion of email subject lines with 'at-a-glance' understanding of what is being communicated therein and Action Required, Background Information, Closing Observations - type, ordered segments to outgoing emails which request activity of others.

(d) A bit of training to give effect to the above:

Not much, it isn't rocket science: 4 or 5 hours is enough.

Solving the after issue is all about cognitive re-mapping of email technology users.

Consider: it took 70 years for the telephone to become a mainstream consumer technology, 15 years for the fax and 18 months for email. The essential design of email technologies (which have not significantly

changed since email arrived on the scene), has encouraged a cognitive mapping of Send-Receive-File in the people who use them (i.e. all of us).

This is a nonsense.

Even Bill Gates is on record as saying that email has spawned a generation of filing clerks

99.99% percent of all email messages carry no value after the content has been communicated. At the point of reading an email, it is what the reader needs to DO subsequently that becomes relevant. How is the resulting next action to be managed? What cognitive process should be followed to allow this next action to be achieved? How can the email technology be used to facilitate these facets?

The answer lies in the 4Ds: Ditch, Deal, Delegate, Decide.

Check out our one-minute overview of the 4D process.

Thus, the challenge is to cognitively remap email users:

OUT: Send-Receive-File IN: Ditch-Deal-Delegate-Decide

This is a people-focussed, not technology-focused, activity. Moving from the Send-Receive-File paradigm involves three things:

1) A new software environment which drives the 4Ds.

2) Low-impact, high-value learning to transition to the 4Ds, guided by the software.

3) Proof that real value is being created by having made this change.

In Orla, we have developed a program which ties this solution to the after issue all together. Using a simple software reconfiguration of Outlook (via a plug-in) and a total of no more than 4 hours of personal training in the corporate environment over the course of 21 days, the after issue can be readily and definitively solved. Through the use of the custom designed Tmail feature, Orla also provides the software tools needed to address the before issue too.

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