Thursday, February 12, 2009

Email training - bah humbug!

The challenges of ‘email-as-problem’ in the modern workplace are well understood. Many training methods have been consistently tried since the scale of the issue raised its head more than 10 years ago. However, since ‘email-as-problem’ is caused by technology, a crucial part of the solution must be based in technology. Without technology to enable the change to the good, most email-training initiatives fail to deliver long-lasting meaningful outcomes, as they ultimately stand or fall on changing people’s behaviour.

Not unexpectedly, the change-management challenge rears it head and stands in the way of universal success.

With email rapidly becoming an all-consuming problem for both workers and the enterprises they serve, email can be said to have gone far beyond the realms of a ‘Killer App’ and taken on the qualities of a ’Zombie App. The pressures of time,(1) incumbent investments in non-performing technologies, (2) senior management reluctance to recognise email as a significant issue to be addressed (3) and the perennial challenge of change (4) all conspire to make ‘email-as-problem’ an intractable dilemma that all-too-often falls into the ‘too hard’ basket.

Focused, comprehensive user training in the effective use of email has been shown, on occasion, to bear significant fruit. The key here is focused - most email training doesn't come up to snuff.

Dr. Monica Seeley, CEO of Mesmo Consultancy, is a change specialist based in the United Kingdom. She develops email charters and tailored workshops for companies seeking to improve their workflow-management processes. She also writes for the Times of London from time to time. Here’s an example of how the approach she adopted has brought about improvements in email management: (5)

In 2004, a UK construction company was seeking assistance in getting to grips with ‘email-as-problem’. An internal change-management programme was created, called ‘Easy Email’ as a distinctive brand. The programme was delivered enterprise-wide to a dispersed and mobile workforce of several hundred people, involving optional training and an intensive internal marketing campaign.

Brought about as a result of widespread internal complaints about staff spending too much time on email, with their inboxes always full, Dr. Seeley’s focus groups revealed that:

  • Email volume was too great.
  • Attachment sizes were problematic.
  • People were using email to ‘get the monkey off their backs’.
  • Unrealistic expectations of an immediate response were de rigueur.
  • Emails were preferred to talking.
  • Notions of compliance were not a key consideration in the psyche of the workforce.

The ‘Easy-Mail’ programme involved an Outlook fitness check; the crafting of an email best-practice user guide; workshops and online tips and tricks for effective email management. The programme was wrapped in an email charter called CUSTOMS (Communicate clearly, Use attachments with care, Stay within the law, Think of the recipient, Organise your time at your inbox, Master the software, Select the right way to communicate).

The programme was specifically branded and aggressively marketed internally. It involved office posters, comprehensive information packs for each person, a pocket-sized CUSTOMS guide, stickers, a calendar with a ‘tip per month’ and a copy of the slide presentation used at the workshops. The intention was to make it fun as well as part of daily work.

Out of 1,000 employees, 400 staff participated, 65% attended the optional workshops and 75% returned the surveys. All respondents reported that the time spent learning was worthwhile and that they would each be doing at least one thing differently, confirming that a change in email behaviour was intended by those responding.

Three months later, informal feedback revealed that the initiative had reduced the number of times per day people felt they needed to check email, reducing stress levels and some of the pressure around email. Additional benefits included improved time-use effectiveness and inculcating a new approach to email and methods of communicating.

’Easy-Mail’ continued after the formal programme had ended, taking in continuing hints and tips and ‘presence’ inside the firm.

This programme highlighted the technical issues surrounding email overload, so internal systems adjustments were carried out, leading to the removal of inbox quotas and the implementation of centralised storage of email archives.

Of course, Dr Seely's trainees were actually undertaking two education exercises. Managing email as a culture and also as a technology. In the Master the software piece, it begs the question as to why the software had to be mastered in the first place. Implicitly, therefore, the software was mastering the user.

Now there's a thought!

1 The average desk worker has 36 hours of unfinished work on his desk and spends 3 hours per week sorting piles trying to find the project to work on next: Richard Swenson: The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits (1995) Navpress.

2 The Trouble With Computers: Thomas K. Landauer (1995) MIT Press.

3 Nancy Flynn, Executive Director, ePolicy Institute, Email Rules, Free Report (2003) Retrieved April 1, 2007 from

4 Change invokes a wide range of responses in people, from excitement and enthusiasm to panic, fear, depression, feelings of loss and confusion. Nancy Barger, The Challenge of Change in Organizations Helping Employees Thrive in the New Frontier (1995), David Black Press

5 Reported in: E-mail Management, Goodman, (2006), Chapter 14 pp 87-90.

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