Saturday, June 07, 2008

Let go of old technology - out with email

For a while now I've had the funny feeling that email creates at least as much work as it facilitates.

Wondering if there were any other malcontents out there - I guessed there would be - I found this in an old blog entry from a guy called Lars Plougmann. He works at an organisation that promotes social software as far as I could tell. This rather amusing (though obviously made up) breakdown from August 2006 sums up how I feel about managing projects with email.

  • 9 people read the email
  • 8 people file the email (in their private folders, thereby duplicating effort)
  • 7 people are interrupted in their work or thoughts when the email arrives
  • 6 people will never be able to find the email again
  • 5 people didn’t actually need to know about the change
  • 4 people joining the project in the next phase wouldn't have received the email
  • 3 people will be able to find the email again, should they need to
  • 2 people will check back to the email at a later date when they need the information
  • 1 of them will understand the email in context, be able to find it at a later date and action it

Based on my own experience of taking even just a day off, and then contending with the swamped inbox full of things I, at best, may need to know, some I definitely do and a fair load I certainly don't, this seems a reasonable stab at summarising the waste.

A hint that its time may have passed lies in the "e" tag which effectively marks email out as something of a digital antique - everything is "i" or "pod" now.

Email is over 40 years old, but its growth in popularity and arrival at ubiquity really occurred in mid-90s, the heyday of desktop computing and the beginning of the wide-spread adoption of the Internet. At the time "always on" Internet access was something of a luxury. We were still paying by the minute for access, and in any case, the 56k speeds were so slow as to limit what we could achieve.

But email, able to step online, pull down these messages from anywhere, that may have been sent only seconds before, was a miracle. Working on separate, isolated desktops was the norm and email was one of the best ways to make bridges between them.

Email changed how we could communicate, work and behave, just as effectively as the postal service, the telegraph and satellite communications did before it. And, just as the post continues to play a unique part in the way we communicate, despite the fact that in many instances it is now easier, quicker and cheaper to use email, email itself will probably continue to be relevant for years to come.

But for some tasks, in particular group working on shared tasks - ie projects - email, for the reasons above, has been itself replaced by a generation of tools, mostly web-based, that allow us to work in shared spaces. They allow us to easily and very effectively keep all our communication in one place, track tasks, hold meetings, share files, collaborate on documents - the list goes on. Instead of working on isolated desktops, we can work in our own project offices, each the size of the world if needs be.

Or rather, email should have been replaced in this way. But it hasn't. Sadly, these email killers are not new - collaborative tools like Google Apps, Zoho or BaseCamp, forums and wikis - and yes, even blogs - are now established, familiar and robust. Yet there continues to be a blindness in those who should spot the problems and their solutions, so we are stuck giving our time to the inbox instead of something useful.

For me it is ironic that so many people engaged at the intersection of technology and learning should take so long to see it.

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