Email – The Digital Dumpster

This is the second in a 3 part series on Technologies we can live without.  In my last posting, I made the case for why VPN is utterly useless technology.

It isn’t difficult to make the case against VPN.  There are over a billion computer users in the world, and I’m willing to state that not a single one of them looks forward to using VPN at the start of their workday (and throughout the day because their VPN sessions keep timing out).

You might feel that it would be harder to make a case against email.   I don’t agree.  To me, email is a digital dumpster – a place where binary garbage goes to live.

Let’s start by taking a look at what email is used for: there are two tasks that you use email for: (1) Communication and (2) Collaboration.  My thesis is that you can improve your productivity by using different tools to accomplish these task.

(1) Communication

Communication takes two forms: synchronous and asynchronous.   Common forms of synchronous communication include the phone calls, meetings and one-on-one conversations – any communication where all participants are ‘connected’, ‘listening’ and ‘responding’.  Instant messaging is another form of synchronous communication.  Instant messaging is actually a lot more powerful than email because most instant messaging systems like Microsoft Office Communicator and Jabber provide all sorts of goodies that don’t quite make sense in an email like presence, the ability to immediately enter into a web meeting and the ability to ‘convert’ the IM to a VOIP conversation.

It’s fairly easy to make the case that IM is superior to Email for synchronous communications.  So lets perform a gedanken experiment: what are we left with if we take all of our synchronous communications out of email?  If you guessed asynchronous ones, you would be right!

It turns out asynchronous communications are critical in our modern world.  Prior to email, the most popular form of asynchronous communications was voice mail and the written communications.

Asynchronous communications can also be used to transmit information to people when you don’t expect a response such as meeting notices, instructions of some sort or other and email spam (do these fools really expect us to respond?)

The problem with relying on email for asynchronous messaging is that the average email inbox is such a vast wasteland of asynchronous messages (the digital dumpster) that its hard for people to keep track of what messages they have received.

We’ve all taken part in email ‘threads’ that go like this:

To: Peter@Initech.com

From: Bill@initech.com

Peter:  Just a reminder that we’re using a new cover on the TPS reports.

From: Peter@initech.com

To: Bill@initech.com

Bill:
I looked at my email and can’t seem to find the new cover for the TPS reports, when did you send it?

To: Peter

From: Bill

Peter:

I sent it about two weeks ago.  It should be in your in box.

To: Bill

From: Peter

Sorry Bill, couldn’t find it, perhaps it was sent to my SPAM folder.  Do you mind resending it?

This issue points out that we are asynchronously communicating in EXACTLY the opposite manner that we should be. Think of the email as ‘meta data’ – it describes the facets of the desired communication (new report cover, due date, etc). In this way, the email acts like a set of TAGS on the TPS Report.

Why not just tag the new report cover instead?  Then you send an IM, a text message, an RSS feed, heck even an email with a link to the cover rather than embedding the document in the email.  They wouldn’t have to go digging through their digital dumpsters looking for the report template, they would just need to open the document via the link.  And they would always be assured that they would be referring to the latest version of the document.  This type of asynchronous communications is much more efficient than embedding document in emails and hoping people read the email.  Microsoft SharePoint excels at this type of document management which may go a long way towards explaining why SharePoint sales have been going through the roof – people are desperate to find better ways to manage asynchronous communications.

But before we turn off email, we need to consider the second class of tasks we perform with email – collaboration.

(2) Collaboration

Merriam-Webster defines collaboration as “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavour”.    And most of use email to work jointly or together.  Imagine you’re on a team that’s developing a proposal for a client.  Someone on the team creates a draft of the proposal and then sends it around to the team for review.  This is certainly a quick way to work jointly but one that is fraught with problems: who has the definitive version of the document?  Have we sent it to everyone he needs to provide input?  Could someone accidentally or intentionally send the proposal to someone who should not have access, like a competitor? Is everyone reviewing the correct version?

Using email to manage collaboration is a lot like playing the child’s game ‘telephone’.  There are so many ways that the message can be bungled that it’s a wonder any one still relies on email for collaboration.

Yet email is still the easiest and fastest way to communicate and collaborate with external parties.   But that still doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to collaborate.  Many external communications require an audit trail to ensure that all parties on agree what was said and what needs to be done.  Creating audit trails in email is problematic: it’s difficult to know everyone who has seen the email (think of the situation where I download the document to a flash drive and then send it to the customer via my personal email – the enterprise email system has no way to know that this transaction occurred).  Just as with asynchronous communications, platforms like SharePoint and Huddle are actually better milieu for managing collaboration.

So if you move synchronous communications to IM and asynchronous communications and collaboration to more suitable platforms like SharePoint or Huddle, then all you have left in your inbox is SPAM.

So tell me again, why do we need email in our lives?

Next: Can you live without your operating system?

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One Response to Email – The Digital Dumpster

  1. Pingback: Operating Systems – So who cares? | donkos

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