Monday, April 18, 2011

Email Emancipation

Remember the days of typewriters and memo’s, internal mail deliveries and the excitement that came with the introduction of word processors? Your desk had a work space, an in- and an out-tray, and your secretary would make sure the out-tray was emptied regularly in line with internal mail and the in-tray was organised with post-it instructions like ‘sign here’, ‘urgent’, or ‘for your attention’. You had time to ‘do’ work.

And then email arrived...

Thanks to Mr Ray Tomlinson, the man who originally invented sending and receiving messages in this manner way back in 1971, email was agreat leap forward in communication. In an interview with Datamation in 2002 he was asked what he thought email would look like in 10 years. His response and I quote was “You may see it more closely integrated with other forms of communication, though, like instant messaging”.

But back to email proper. How much time do you spend every day, not just business hours, in front of your computer reading, responding and attempting to manage your email? Where on your desk do you do your ‘real’ work? In the centre or is that where your computer sits? Is email still email in its own right or has it done what Ray Tomlinson thought and become closely integrated with other forms of communication?

As more global organisations do more global projects there’s a tendency to conduct every facet of their business via email, completely replacing the need for any human contact or interaction. Take Instant Messaging, a great tool that’s fast, efficient, and effective. Quick questions get quick responses. But what’s happening to work? Once we’ve got through our “insert the number of emails you get in a day here” and those that haven’t been addressed from yesterday, the day before or last week, the time to do work has gone.

A reader of the Unlike Before blog Bob, made a comment on an earlier blog post about urgency. While the topic was different his comment is absolutely valid here too: “A great example of the fast-food, instant gratification and the "if I want it today, I'll ask for it tomorrow" mindset that is so pervasive today. I think people are equating/confusing the speed of communication with actual reaction time, which clearly can't keep up. This then gets tied to the conduit vs filter mentality, ie just pass the info along, don't look at it to see if it makes sense or is well-defined, and voila, urgency without accountability = paralysis.”

Somehow email has created behaviour where we anticipate and almost expect some form of instant gratification via fast turnaround. As Bob said it looks like speed of communication is being confused with actual reaction time. Sending, forwarding and exchanging emails can actually result in more delays than helping get any work done. People still have meetings to attend, documents to review, feedback to give, make decisions, talk to other people and the million other things that makes a business successful.

We need to be smarter about how we manage our email. We need to liberate ourselves from this dependency. Think about setting aside certain blocks of time in the calendar to focus on email leaving the rest of the time for meetings and doing work. Read our 5 Rules for Email Emancipation and add any others that work for you.

Above all, let’s get some real work done.

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