By Mike Boltz
The new economy is upon us and this difficult business environment demands that we streamline our processes and focus everything we do on competitive advantage. It is time to look at simplifying our daily work lives and eliminate unproductive tasks, processes and work. E-mail, a very useful and powerful tool, has become a major productivity drag on firms due to misuse and abuse. It's not the only productivity culprit -- too many committees and meetings, not to mention steering committees that oversee steering committees, are other examples of productivity bandits -- but by far the biggest drag on productivity I have witnessed during my career is the e-mail deluge. I can't count how many times I've heard folks say they are digging out of their e-mail inbox and can't keep up. Let's break the e-mail problem down and explore some solutions.I can remember the era before corporate e-mail became the norm. Those were the good old days of the inter-office memo. We were very selective about what memos we chose to author as it was a time consuming process that usually involved a memo-taking administrative assistant. The authors were usually limited to senior management and not the entire employee population of your firm. The carbon copy list was usually nailed down to just those folks who were critical to be in the know of the memo's content. With the adoption of e-mail technology, creating and sending information, memos and documents became accessible to every employee in the firm. This shift has opened the information floodgates and can drown the productivity of your employees. I don't want to imply that e-mails and the information contained within are not important. To the contrary, e-mail is one of the best tools we have to share information. I am focused on the overuse or abuse of the e-mail platform, not the elimination of it.
I have heard from several folks that they wish the reply all button could be disabled on their e-mail system. How many times have you seen the continuously circulating e-mail chain with an ever growing distribution list of recipients? It clogs your network with folks piling on to reply to all and adding even more recipients. Too many of your employees will end up reading these types of e-mail chains, pulling them away from productive work. Chances are that 10% of the recipients are the actual folks who need to be informed by the content of the original email. That's a big drain on your productivity. So what can be done to stifle the abuse of email while keeping your team informed, productive and effective?
My recommendation is you leverage instant messing (IM) platforms to reduce the e-mail chain traffic. IM tools enable your employees to connect and communicate effectively and efficiently with each other without distracting others not directly involved in the subject matter of the communication. The younger workforce is very familiar and comfortable with IM. I have observed teenagers who do their homework, watch TV, listen to music and IM all concurrently and effectively. I am doubtful that this leads to more effective homework, but I can say that younger people are multi-taskers and used to IM.
There are other tools and technologies that can help effective communication and eliminate e-mail floods. Collaboration platforms are very effective and coming into wider adoption in corporations. These platforms allow for wikis and blogs and virtual team sites where documents and other forms of information can be dynamically accessed and updated by those relevant to the content. I also recommend looking closely at the Second Life virtual world from Linden Labs. In a prior job, I oversaw the creation of a virtual corporate island within Second Life. It is a very effective way to have people connect and collaborate.
Every member of Second Life creates a virtual representation of themselves called an avatar. Your avatar lives inside the virtual world and you can talk (VoIP), IM, play videos, post documents and do just about anything you can do in the real world, except experiencing the senses of touch and smell. (I&T Editor's Note: Also, we've found virtual eating to be a waste of time.)
I held virtual project team meetings inside Second Life when we were developing the island with our IBM partners. Conducting training sessions inside of Second Life is very powerful and, as your folks do not need to travel to your training center, it's a great way to reduce your travel expenses.
Whatever actions you take to stop e-mail abuse and overuse must be supported with education and reinforcement from senior management. Make it clear that reply all e-mail behavior is not acceptable. I am sure providing other tools like IM and collaboration platforms will actually boost morale and e-mail will be leveraged as the effective information tool it is meant to be.
Mike Boltz most recently was EVP and CIO of West Des Moines, Iowa-based Aviva USA. He left the firm in November. From 1998 to 2004, Boltz was a VP at Charles Schwab.It is time to look at simplifying our daily work lives and eliminate unproductive tasks, processes and work. E-mail, a very useful and powerful tool, has become a major productivity drag on firms due to misuse and abuse.