Rage against the machine

There is no doubt, we have a love-hate relationship with email. As much as we say we would like to ditch this modern millstone, there is plenty of evidence to show that email remains entrenched in the information workplace as a core communication tool.

Worldwide email traffic continues to grow at an enormous rate and is now measured in billions of messages per day. This trend is also reflected inside organisations, where according to Gartner Research it is typically growing at a rate of 30% each year.

However, these numbers only tell one side of the story. Access to corporate email might be common place, but opinion remains divided about its effectiveness. As the volume of email has increased, so have the complaints about information overload, the impact of poor communication and inefficient collaboration practices. In response to these issues, technologists have created more new tools that each promise to solve the email problem better than the last.

For example, in the past we have seen a range of different business process systems, “groupware”, and other project management tools that were supposed to help ease the burden.

However, where these types of tools have been used well they have tended to live along side email, rather than displace it entirely. In this respect, people often felt that these tools created more work for them and lacked the flexibility the inbox offered.

The new generation of enterprise social computing tools – like instant messaging, microblogging, blogs, wikis and social networks – offer a better chance of displacing the dominance of email in the workplace, but are still unlikely to replace it entirely.

However, Google Wave (or more specifically, the Wave Federation Protocol, which is an extension to the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol used for instant messaging) has been put forward as the email killer.

It potentially offers the same interoperability between different people and organisations that we already experience with email. Unfortunately, we are yet to achieve that same critical mass in practice just yet.

Recognising that we are effectively ‘stuck’ with email, many organisations have instead chosen to focus on the managing the volume of email generated rather than attempting to reduce it. Most are simply concerned about the cost of storing email, although some also introduce email archiving systems because they are worried about losing data, the risk of liability through legal discovery or are mandated to practice high standards of record keeping.

Unfortunately, when these organisations implement email management solutions they are often surprised that people resist them. Even if every email is stored in the email archiving solution, users complain they can’t find anything.

However, if users are asked to selectively store email into a records management system, equally they find the task tiresome. Often people will continue to manage their own email archive in parallel with the corporate system, even to the extent of carrying over email from one employer to another.

At the heart of this resistance is the issue that archiving solutions want to manage email simply as another piece of ‘data’, but in practice each email is more than just a data object to be stored in the most cost effective way.

Each email message exists in the context of the user’s work and daily activities and as a result people have a peculiar relationship with email and their inboxes. Unfortunately, the moment we force people to store email into an archiving system we typically break the personal inbox habits they have developed to create their own personalised information tool.

Rightly or wrongly, the average person also finds the argument that disk space is a premium hard to understand. Why is it, they ask, that they can buy a terabyte of storage from the local office supplies store, but their work email account is restricted to a few hundred megabytes? This means the organisation is unlikely to get much sympathy about the core issue they claim to be trying to solve.

Archiving solutions today are really a brute force approach to dealing with the email problem. They are also based on the goal of reducing data storage costs, which most people in the workplace are ambivalent about. While there may be a place for such an approach, as some point we also have to recognise that we can not simply deal with email as data in isolation.

For example, it is reported that progressive CIO of BT Global Services, JP Rangaswami, has applied an open email approach to himself – his staff have direct access to his mailbox and any messages where he is CC’d are immediately deleted. Imagine how an approach like this in your workplace could reframe the email problem?

So, if we are to help mitigate the burden that the pervasiveness of email has created, we have to start with understanding how people currently use email and how it fits into the overall information workplace they are part of. A user-centred approach to dealing with the problem of both the volume of email and its inefficiencies together is the only way we can really hope to create the right mix of email archiving and better collaboration practices.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2010 edition of Image & Data Manager magazine. Image credit: Amy Mud Pie – licensed CC BY-ND.