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?