The Downside of Email

My first job was at Amoco almost 30 years ago. Amazingly, I have had access to email since day one of my working career.  Amoco was heavily invested in technology and had worked closely with IBM to develop the system. See The Networked Business Place for historical context.

dino-648718_640Email as we know it has about three decades of longevity. This is practically a dinosaur in the IT era. And like other dinosaurs that once roamed the earth, many experts feel it is just a matter of time before it becomes extinct. As noted in Is it Time for Email to Go Away?, there are many better ways to manage our tasks, communicate and foster team collaboration.

Email is like junk food: cheap, abundant and familiar. As you work through your inbox and crank out responses to messages and instigate other conversation threads, it can make you feel full and satisfied. That doesn’t mean it is the best choice.

The primary challenge in breaking our steady diet of email is that behavior change requires a group effort that starts at an individual level with each of us. Like with any other diet, we need to sacrifice immediate gratification for a long-term payoff.  The new tools hold promise for more efficient and effective communication. The amount of change necessary to reap the full benefits is definitely easier said than done, but will be worth it.

Is it Time for Email to Go Away?


Has email lived its useful life? Recently articles* about new products such as Slack and Facebook at Work highlight the emerging second generation of social business applications and ponder their usefulness. Will they replace old guard products like email, or create a new space? Even IBM is getting into the game. Their offering, Verse, was touted as “a new way to work” in recent TV commercials that aired during the NFL divisional championship football games.

My opinion? Who knows what will happen. I recall writing about this very topic about 10 years ago—clearly, “if” and “when” are difficult questions to answer.

Email’s inherent problems are many:

  • It grabs our attention, not necessarily in a good way. With a LIFO approach, each new message pops up on our screen and announces itself. It interrupts our thought process and begs for an immediate response.
  • It’s not easy to manage. Questions abound. What do I need to store in folders for future retrieval? What needs to be followed up on? What responses am I waiting on from someone else? In the end, the size of our inbox and the amount of care and feeding it requires creates stress.
  • It doesn’t have a memory, making it hard to find/file/recall/share with others after the fact.
  • Email isn’t designed for collaboration. Attempting to share back and forth and have a conversation leads to unwieldy, long conversation threads.
  • It simple does many things poorly, namely transferring files, generating notifications, knowledge sharing and document management.

The new tools are certainly exciting, but how well they can mitigate and replace the challenges of email is yet to be seen.

*Additional reading:

Weekly Download 14.20

download-158006_640Here’s a recap of news and notes from around the Web that caught my attention over the past week or so.

Ever sent an email you wish you didn’t? I have, leading to my adoption of this modern commandment: thou shalt not hit send in anger. You Can Recover From a Snippy Email, But Prepare to Grovel is a practical guide to  what type of emails to refrain from sending and how to make amends when you have done so and are regretting it. It includes a history lesson:

Abraham Lincoln is said to have advised his secretary of war, who was furious with one of his generals, to write the man a sharp letter, then “put it in the stove.”

IBM Plummets as CEO Abandons 2015 Earnings Forecast. I commented on this back in a July 2014 post.

How Wolves Change Rivers. Perhaps you’ve seen this making the rounds on the internet or Facebook. I thought it was very powerful example of “systems thinking” and how small things can impact distant and seemingly unrelated items. Like our natural systems that this video demonstrates, much of our work occurs in a larger system (such as our organization’s culture) that may be hard to see or understand.

Character matters. I don’t recall how I found Psychopaths in the C-suite: Fred Kiel at TEDxBGI, but I liked the research-based approach that links certain character traits and profitability. The four character traits studied are: Integrity, Responsibility, Forgiveness and Compassion.

Bonkers World is a fun site. Who doesn’t like comics? I particularly enjoyed the humor in this one:

Credit to Manu Cornet

Weekly Download 14.11

download-158006_640Here’s a recap of news and notes from around the Web that caught my attention over the past week or so.

Did PowerPoint Ruin GM? This interesting WSJ article describes the potential that facts relating to the ignition switch fault were edited out of long PowerPoint presentations at GM. It reminds me of a much older Edward Tufte essay that discusses the pitfalls of what is now commonly referred to as “death by PowerPoint.” Tufte also analyzes a Boeing presentation to NASA, and takes the company to task for oversimplifying and obscuring crucial information. How often do we let monotonous slides and the related editing process dictate the flow of conversation? Wouldn’t it be better to just write a report and not present anything? I have moved away from PowerPoint-driven meetings as much as possible, sometimes even handwriting the key points I want to discuss. How do you make sure the right dialogue is occurring in your meetings?

handdrawn meeting presentation

Sketch and photo by Mark Baker

I remember writing a blog entry (a rant, really) about six or seven years ago on why email needs to go away. We allow valuable hours to be driven (like Pavlov’s dog) by what arrives in our inbox. With the number of communication and information points today, it becomes unruly to manage the sifting and sorting. A Company Without Email? Not So Fast discusses a couple of solutions that are picking up traction.

You never know where simple, profound inspiration may be found. Like in a fortune cookie. Great Things are Made from Little Things cites one of my favorite quotes:

 “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”—Aristotle