March 12, 2006

About email

So we've been doing some interviews with our colleagues in academic departments about their uses of and aspirations for IT in their work. Something that has come up repeatedly is the crucial importance of email, either implicitly, because "email" is the answer to the question "How do you do x?" for lots of values of x, or explicitly, where our interviewees go out of their way to tell us that email is the single most important application to them, hugely more important than anything else.

This clearly isn't stop-the-press stuff; the email outage last Christmas and the intermittent problems with it since then have already provided plenty of proof that email is a Really Big Deal to people. But I think there's another interesting question which one can ask; when and why did email become so mission critical? Ten years ago it wasn't unusual to find members of the university who didn't use email at all. Five years ago most people used it, but my sense is that they didn't depend on it as they seem to now. What's changed?

In part I suspect it's a network effect: if everyone else uses email then you have to. If everyone else responds to their email within the hour then you seem unresponsive if you don't. There's an interesting article called What's the secret to your success? by Michael Hyatt, the President of Thomas Nelson Publishers:

If I really, really had to boil it down to one thing, I would say this: responsiveness. … Reality is that we live in an “instant world.” People want instant results. They don’t want to wait. And if they have to wait on you, their frustration and resentment grows. They begin to see you as an obstacle to getting their work done.

If that's right, if expectations of responsiveness have grown, then you can see why not having your email would be a problem. I think there could be other reasons too:-

  • For some people, their email folders have become their de facto filestore. They receive all their documents by email, they file their emails in a well organised structure of folders, so the documents and files they need are stored in and retrieved from their email folders instead of their C drive or H drive. This also makes the files available from almost anywhere, which may be a deliberate decision or an accidental by-product.

  • Some people use email as their to-do list manager, either explicitly by maintaining calendars and to-do lists and contact lists within their email system, or implicitly because their inbox represents all the things that currently need their attention. No inbox means no sense of what the next thing that needs doing is.

These two functions could be moved out of email if necessary, of course. If it was easy to store and access and share files on the desktop or via the web then the need to use email for those purposes might diminish. Likewise rich, shareable to-do lists and calendars and directories. If there was campus-based instant messaging, would that reduce reliance on email for quick, short, immediate interactions? (None of which is to say, of course, that one should move these functions into different applications, only that one could.)

So if we ignore these other aspects of email for a moment and concentrate on the core business of sending and receiving messages, what's the nature of the dependency? Clearly it's different for different people and at different times. I speculate that most people have occasions when email is crucial; you're waiting for the job offer, or the authorisation to proceed, or the whatever. But for how many people is that the state of affairs all the time? Try this thought experiment: you move to a different university which has a distinctive email policy as follows:-

We deliver email to your in-box at 8am only, and we collect it from your out-box at 6pm only. There are no deliveries or collections at weekends or on public and customary holidays. Nobody should be a slave to email at the University of Gedankenexperiment.

Would you be better or worse off? Would the institution be better or worse off?


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  1. Worse, because that system assumes that you are the type of person that works an 8–6 type of day, which is so not the case for most students! Also, a lot of times emails are used for simple thins taht lead to bigger tasks – like asking a quick question to your lecturer so you can write a better essay or arranging a time to meet with a supervisor or study group. So time would not be efficiently spent at all.

    12 Mar 2006, 18:34

  2. John Rawnsley

    Perhaps because I have had an email address for about 25 years and in the early days it was frequently not working 24/7 I don't feel so pressurised to deal with it quickly.

    Rather it's other people's expectation that I should be reading and responding instantly, sending emails about meetings 10 minutes before they take place and then being surprised that I haven't read the new agenda item.

    Actually, I'd welcome a system like the one you suggest except I think the email should be delivered at 6pm and collected at 8am. :)

    12 Mar 2006, 20:32

  3. Chris May

    I'm all for your system. More often than not I follow it anyway, by just ignoring email during they day. If it's important, someone'll come and find me. If I find myself needing to send "urgent" email, then in general it means I've failed to plan something properly.

    Serendipitously, O'Reilly Radar has just published the transcript of Linda Stone's presentation at etech on 'Attention". A couple of aposite snippets:

    This always on, anywhere, anytime, any place era has created an artificial sense of constant crisis. What happens to mammals in a state of constant crisis — the adrenalized Fight or Flight mechanism kicks in. It's great when we're being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a tiger? Or are they mostly mice? Is everything really such an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is

    – the last sentence is the most telling; email enourages the view that things are more urgent than they really are. My personal opinion is that it also encourages weak planning and poor communication, because people believe they can get the information they'll need as and when they need it, rather than doing so in advance. Then they're disappointed when their lecturer doesn't respond to emails on the sunday night before their assignment is due…

    Take Email; a communication technology of choice used for every type of communication. Consider how effective email is for decision making or for crisis management. NOT. Yet, it's still used for those types of communication – even after all these years. WHY? It's OUR opportunity to come up with new technologies that are better for that or to, at least, stop using email in situations where it's such a poor match. Wikis are better for brainstorming. I.M. is better for making a plan. Telephones and IM may be better for crisis management.

    I'm down with that. Email, at warwick at least, is used as a sticking-plaster for a lack of better systems (in the broad sense, working practices as much as IT). Linda's right, though what she doesn't mention is that just talking to people is better than any technology solution will ever be.

    12 Mar 2006, 22:32

  4. I can't say I'm entirely for that system, but I think it would be better if people checked their e-mail less. If nothing else, it's much quicker to deal with everything once per day than to try and handle things as they arrive. Besides which, I agree with Chris that e-mail isn't well suited to urgent communication. Telephones, instant messaging, and good old fashioned visiting people are much better at that.

    Personally, I tend to not reply until I think of a suitable response, which is sometimes instant and sometimes takes days.

    I think it would be better if people regarded e-mail as an easy way to send letters, rather than a slow form of instant messaging.

    13 Mar 2006, 09:15

  5. John Dale

    I was interested to read this article about how various other people work. Their views on email vary widely:-

    I'll just sit down and do e-mail for ten to 14 hours straight.

    – Marissa Mayer, Google

    You have to cut the information flow to a minimum level. You could spend your whole day reading different opinions. For me, that means I don't answer or look at any e-mails I don't want to. My motto is, I don't want to be connected — I want to be disconnected.

    – Bill Gross, Pimco

    I'm not a big e-mailer, though; it's a crutch that hinders person-to-person communication.

    – Howard Schultz, Starbucks

    I typically don't sign off e-mail until midnight. I get around 600 e-mails a day. I divide them into four categories, and I deal with them immediately, by and large. First are e-mails that I forward to someone else. Next are where somebody's giving me information that I need to cascade to somebody else with instructions. Third are the ones that I can read later on an airplane. Fourth are those that require me to respond immediately.

    – Amy W. Schulman, Piper, Rudnick, Gray & Cary

    A key to staying calm is minimizing the information onslaught. I can't remember the last time I wrote a memo. I write little handwritten notes on my AGL paper, and I send notes, a paragraph or less, on my BlackBerry. I prefer conversations.

    – A.G. Lafley, Chairman, Procter & Gamble

    I read my e-mails, but I don't write any. I'm a Neanderthal — I don't even type.

    – John McCain, US Senator

    Really, I have to admit: I'm an e-mail addict. It keeps me connected to work even when I'm not at the office. I do about an hour of e-mail in the morning after I've skimmed the newspapers. I'd rather have lunch at my desk and read though e-mails between meetings. In between, I check e-mail on my BlackBerry. Then, no matter when I get home at night — and it's usually late — I do at least an hour or two of e-mail.

    – Jane Friedman, CEO, HarperCollins

    I have become entirely e-mail dependent in the sense that I would not dream of going anywhere overnight without my laptop. I can't even substitute a BlackBerry because so much of the stuff that I get involves substantial attachments. So I carry a laptop everywhere. With e-mail there's a kind of oppression factor, especially on Mondays. But it's a very small price to pay.

    – Judge Richard Posner

    I've never used e-mail, but I'm a huge voicemail user. I do a couple hundred voicemails a day.

    – Hank Paulson, CEO, Goldman Sachs

    14 Mar 2006, 15:51

  6. Having worked in a business environment with email, instant messaging, Team Rooms & VoIP built into one product (Lotus Notes 7) and Warwick's email only strategy, I find that I am frequently using email instead of instant messaging another student or academic staff or even worst, sending massive email attachments because there is no central area to share these files.

    If Warwick implemented an instant messaging and file sharing (and I mean for group project work etc.), then my 'inbox' would be far smaller and be much easier to manage. It would be great if commitments were organised and instead of receiving an email about them, they were put directly into your calendar (e.g. for revision lectures, meetings with academic staff, clubs and societies events, SSLC meetings, deadlines for work etc.) via meeting notices. Currently to organise meetings with students (i.e. about 10 people or so) invovles about 20 emails each replied to all with everyone stating their availability instead of looking up their free time. For the revision lecture example, I will receive 15 different emails at the beginning of next term telling me when my revision lectures are based on what I have in OMR. If these just appeared in my calendar, I would be far happier.

    As a result of all this 'extra load' coming via email, it is crucial to have 100% uptime. e.g. when Squirrel Mail went down today it was very fustrating as I couldn't work on my mail. With Lotus Notes, with local replicas, you can always work on your mail (e.g. writing new messages, filing messages) on your offline copy which replicates as soon as the server comes back online.

    While I am writing this, Squirrel Mail has gone down again so pretty annoyed with the email system.

    16 Mar 2006, 15:56

  7. Robert O'Toole

    This seems to indicate that a lot of our email traffic is unecessary, perhaps caused by the lack of certain other features (or at least easy access to them).

    At Oxford we used Outlook shared folders, shared calendars and task lists for many of the things for which email is being mis-employed. Of course that meant a very obvious single point of failure. But the integration of these separate functions was useful. The key addition in recent versions of Exchange is better web access. Which means that it should be easier for people to access your calendar or public folder.

    Will ITS implement these features in the new staff system? They may find that it causes email traffic to decrease.

    16 Mar 2006, 16:30

  8. Ian Liverton

    Email for me is a way to communicate fast, and guarentee (virtually! though not at warwick :P ) that they'll receive it, and it'll be convinient for them. It means i dont have to phone someone and find out that I've pulled them away from dinner/their favourite tv show or what ever, but I've still sent the message so its now out of my hands. I like the way I can keep in touch with my societies and friends 24/7 without having to stand by my telephone constantly. When I'm away from an internet connection for an extended period of time i feel out of touch and wonder if there's anything I should know about, or something that I want to make an input to going on on one of the discussion lists. That's probably not good, but it shows how dependant I am on it!

    16 Mar 2006, 17:03

  9. "We deliver email to your in-box at 8am only, and we collect it from your out-box at 6pm only. There are no deliveries or collections at weekends or on public and customary holidays. Nobody should be a slave to email at the University of Gedankenexperiment."

    I think we already have this. Some call it the "Post" others call it "Royal Mail". The only difference is that it does not have a built in spell checker, costs 26p a time and we cant always remember what we have written.

    I dont think email makes us more responsive as such, it just makes it more possible should we choose to be. For example, fire off an email to ITS but dont hold your breath for a reply. Alternatively call them on the phone and though you might be on hold for 10 mins you will get a response at the end of it. Clearly in this scenario, email is used as a stalling tactic to give engineers more time.

    The only reason email has become mission critical is that it has effectively replaced the postal system for day to day communication. I wonder how many of the emails we receive are really that mission critical? I have received about 50 emails this week of which about five were mission critical and if email did not exist i would simply have been telephoned or sent a guranteed next day delivery letter.

    17 Mar 2006, 20:41


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