Reducing the Reliance on Email

Last week I was in a very interesting meeting here on campus with our new CIO, Deputy CIO, and two ITS Senior Directors to talk about blogging. Not the PSU Blog project that is really taking shape, but organizational blogging. I have been spending a lot of my time looking at how organizations can use tools like blogs, wikis, and podcasts to share information within the walls of the unit. It started several months ago with some podcasts that I listened to dealing with enabling direct internal communication within a company — you know, a President or CEO podcasting short weekly updates that people within the company could listen to understand mission, goals, changes, or whatever else. This meeting was designed to get us talking about how we could put a tool like blogs in the middle of a close to 500 person IT department to encourage and enable more authentic and active communication.

The real winner from the meeting was a comment my new CIO made that really struck me … he was talking about email and how it was used. In my own world email has become a real drag on time. I get way too much, it is filled with confusing spam messages, and really doesn’t do a great job at providing context for complex issues. He mentioned a goal that I instantly locked onto — what if we could reduce the total number of emails we send each other by 50% within three years? I was thinking that we could but it would require changing the culture of communication and putting good tools in people’s hands. I thought long and hard about and I think I have an example that I think illustrates the opportunity very well … take the process required to reach a decision on the image below:

Symposium Poster

This is a proposed poster for our TLT Symposium to be held in April. The way this poster came into existence follows a typical pattern … for this example, this is how it happens. I send an email (1) to Dave Stong, our graphic artist, explaining what I am thinking. Dave replies to me via email (2) telling me he understands what I am after and maybe to clarify a few points. I respond to him (3) to clean up a few communication issues. An hour or so later he sends me an email (4) with a link to a comp graphic for me to check out. I click the link and it opens the image in my browser for me to review and think about. I look it over, notice some things I don’t like and send him a note (5) with my thoughts and ask him to explain something to me. He responds (6) with his thoughts and sets off on creating a revised image. He sends me another note (7) that asks me to review it again with a couple more questions. I reply (8) even before looking at the comp to answer his question … I then review the second comp and send him more feedback (9). I finally get another note (10) saying he has implemented the final changes and to review it. I check it out and link it so I send him a note (11) to say it is perfect. He then replies (12) with a thank you and maybe a question about printing it, or size, or some little nuance that requires me to send a final note (13). I then send an email (14) to my Leadership Group to gain feedback and all hell breaks lose (15-30).

If he were to simply post his initial understanding to his blog along with a link to the comp we could have done this whole thing with three emails. Do you know how much time that would save me? Do you realize that we would then have a real trail saved in digital form that is searchable and that answers the questions I will get from Leadership Group? So, on a simple poster, I could save somewhere between 12 to 27 emails. That is what the CIO is asking for … tools that support workflow, increases productivity, and allows us to collaborate in an authentic way. Is anyone feeling this way about email and what are you doing to stop it?

9 thoughts on “Reducing the Reliance on Email

  1. Sure, it seems to makes sense in the way stuff you talk about around a pitcher of beer with the guys makes sense until you get home and talk to the wife in the bright light of the kitchen.

    The goal should be good work born of effective communication. Doing it in a blog could provide that. It could also provide too many voices all of which someone will have to address if a clear path to the project end is to be understoond with certainty by those responsible for the work.

    So… nobody else liked the poster, huh? So I shouldn’t print it then?

  2. Two things, the poster rocks and the notion of the collective voice is a dilemma. The bigger question for me is how do we open the door to simple collaboration and give people a voice but still move things forward. There are things we just do — without the mass input, but there has to be a way to find the balance between closed and open. I am struggling with it and hope to find the middle ground sometime … it may be five years as Brad mentioned today … I just don’t know. Our job is to push and push until we get closer to our vision of the future — whatever that may be. Meetings like today are a major step towards getting there. Now, how do we engage the larger conversation? You tell me.

  3. I used to think the most annoying thing in the world was email with attachments. Most of those attachments being Word documents with nothing but text in them that could just appear in the message.

    Now I’ve become more like you. Same problem in my colleges, people sending responses to responses vs. organizing the discussion in some “responsible” forum.

    Basecamp has changed my perspective on email and the way I manage work. Disccussions start getting thick, make a Basecamp group. Doodle has cut down on those sick threads that start when multiple people try to schedule a meeting (the ones where 6 people send 8 messages a piece saying their available times and some poor sucker has to narrow ’em down). Google docs/spreadsheets great for centralizing document revision (vs. sending a Word file over and over with names like “document16-my-edit.doc”). Heck, Facebook has saved me a lot of email time this semester.

    Simple wikis and blogs should have the same result. I guess its clear to some of us that there are great tools out there (and more that could exist) to reduce email overload. The hard part is getting administrators to value those tools and promote their use in organizations. One good thing I’ve noticed with my colleagues is that the more I force them to use these tools, the more (some of them) adopt for their own work. Still doesn’t eliminate 8000 United Way campaign announcements, but gotta start somewhere.

    Have a good thanksgiving. Clean out your inbox after the family meal…

  4. Yeah – blogging is the cure for all the information overload that email brings. So let’s do everything by blog, and since going through all the blogs takes time – lets have an RSS aggregator to bring them all into one place. Hmm why there is so much all of those RSS? Hey it look just like the emails I had! I am overloaded.

  5. Zbigniew, that’s a very valid point. If it’s just replacing email with blogs (etc…) then it’s not solving anything, just shifting it onto a different application.

    But, I think what Cole was getting at, is that much (most?) of the email he gets (certainly much of the email I get) isn’t really a one-to-one message. It’s a message posted by group members to a group, so you get emails and entire group threads building on them. Each dutifully copying themselves into everyone’s inbox. Each partially archived in everyone’s inbox. But, if this group work is taken into a more conducive medium (blogs, wikis, etc…) it frees email up for more individual messages.
    Just like online courses don’t replace face to face classes, but they can help change the nature of what you do in the more “valuable” face to face (or individual) sessions.
    If much of my group email gets pulled back out to where it belongs, the emails I do get will receive a bit more attention.
    Of course, this was all possible long before blogs, wikis, or even the web. Usenet could have done much of this…

  6. D’Arcy is spot on. The idea isn’t to replace email … that would be silly. The idea is to support it to change the way an organization goes about communicating. I get about 150-200 emails a day with at least a third to half being spam. I am in meetings all but a couple of hours a day as well, so when I am at my desk I am fighting with email … blowing through all but the most critical ones.

    The exchange I cited in the original post probably wouldn’t really happen during the week, but on a weekend when I would actually have the time to sit and think through the issues via email. To me the real problem is that we try to do everything with one tool and it begins to render the environment largely useless. Blogs aren’t the answer, but when used effectively they are a piece to solving the challenge. Just my two cents.

  7. Intelligent insights here. I really appreciate seeing the problem defined as something other than just reducing email.

    How do we move from a conversation that starts as a one-on-one business email conversation to a group attended thread in a company blog? Where should that conversation have started? Is it possible to start a thread that’s only visible to, and only notifies, one other user, while allowing for the addition or exclusion of other voices? That does sound like Basecamp; especially if we need to track iterations.

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