Corporate E-Mail As A Social Network? What Fresh Hell Is This?

I was checking out a gaming news site this morning and in one of their random links sections, I came across this gem. It’s an article written by the CEO of social media tool company HootSuite which talks about how e-mail has become a massive waste of time and productivity in the corporate space, that it’s an obsolete technology and that it should be replaced with something that’s more akin to a social network and that should maybe even integrate Twitter and Facebook somehow. Now, this is another one of these articles which asks someone with a vested interested in seeing a technology fail what he thinks of said technology. He also offers no actual alternative ideas, only criticisms which is surprising given the space his company is in. But the actual criticisms he throws out are so boneheaded and miss the point so entirely that as an IT person in a medium sized company who deals with buckets of e-mail every day, I just had to step up and comment. I’m not going to address each of his points individually, only in a broad sense so go check his article first.

He acts as if e-mail’s the problem and needs to be replaced with something better. However, e-mail is not the problem. As is so often the case, the people using the tools and not the tools themselves are to blame. Firstly, let’s just throw away that pointless stat about how young people are using e-mail less now. This has little to no bearing on the business world which is what his article addressed and how people are choosing to communicate outside of work has no bearing on how they communicate at work. Work and personal life are supposed to be different things and they don’t always have to sync up

At the company I work for now, the people actually handle e-mail pretty well and use it effectively. It’s not perfect and some people don’t manage it ideally but by and large, it’s good. Being one of a two-man IT team, I get a ton of messages a day between user support requests, vendors and informing people of what we’re doing. I would wager that few outside of the executive team get more e-mail than my boss and I. I am rarely at the coveted “inbox zero” but most of the time I’m “inbox ten” at most. How do I do it? Simple: I manage my e-mail well. It’s not hard and I do it with only a few easy steps:

1. If an e-mail doesn’t really require my attention, I delete it. If it’s something minor, I respond to it and delete it. If it’s something longer term, it goes in one of a few folders with generic labels that indicate its category. Nothing stays in the inbox that I don’t need to be reminded of the next time I check it
2. I don’t send one word acknowledgement replies to every message I get. Unless I have something of substance to add, I don’t answer it. Some people consider it rude if you don’t do that and they’re wrong. If you don’t have something relevant to the conversation to say in reply, don’t. Your platitudes just clog up people’s inboxes and waste their time. Send an e-mail when you have something of use to say.
3. I e-mail only the people I need to talk to. Overuse of the Reply All function is a plague and is 100% the result of people either being lazy or disorganised. If you don’t want 20+ message deep threads of e-mail clogging your inbox with a conversation that long since stopped involving you, then when you are in a conversation, make sure to prune out people whose input is no longer needed as it progresses. And if you’re being kept in the loop unnecessarily, ask to be removed. This is easy to do and cuts down on clutter immensely. Again, asking this is not rude, it’s efficient.
4. Similarly, e-mail threads about setting up meetings are unnecessary. Outlook has a calendar invite system for a reason. If you want to setup a meeting, send out the invite and if people have issues with the time or subject of discussion, they can edit the invite and send it back. Using a long e-mail thread to schedule a meeting is doing it wrong. Have the meeting at the meeting, not in e-mail beforehand.
5. If you’re sending attachments around with the expectation that they’ll be edited and resubmitted by recipients in your e-mail thread, you’re also doing it wrong. If your office doesn’t have SharePoint or some other document management solution, then put the relevant files on a shared drive and put a link to it in the e-mail. Attachments are for the purpose of delivering finished documents to where they are supposed to go, they are not a means to enable collaborative editing. Think of it as sending a physical letter. You don’t send a letter to someone expecting them to hand write a bunch of changes and send it back. You send them a finished product. E-mail attachments should be treated the same way.

We don’t need a reinvention of the concept of e-mail or to turn e-mail into some kind of bastardised social network to solve these problems. These aren’t problems with the medium, they’re problems with the people using it. They are signs of an epidemic in the corporate world of people who are not properly trained in time and resource management. If they don’t have those skills, no number of reinvented tools will help them. Turning e-mail into a social network that possibly ties into Facebook and Twitter?! Seriously?! How many stories do we have to read about employees being fired or disciplined because of stupid crap they post on their Facebook profiles on their personal time? We really want all that tied into corporate e-mail as well?

Not everything has to be “a connected social experience” and many things, particularly in the business world are best not wrapped in the social media driven narcissistic notion that everyone around the world wants to hear what you’re doing every second of the day. You’re at work, you aren’t supposed to be surfing social media and it certainly shouldn’t be part of your daily work communications. And I say that as a heavy Twitter user who posts too much crap on it myself and often from the office. Like many facets of life, e-mail can take control of you but only if you let it. Learn to manage your time and your inbox and you can firmly keep your e-mail manageable and effective. It doesn’t matter if the concept of corporate communication is reinvented and revolutionised, disorganised people will be disorganised and that’s the problem businesses need to solve. Teaching people to communicate effectively without unnecessary noise is how you tackle this problem, not by making them learn an entirely new way of doing the same thing and tacking even more layers of complexity on tit.

Of course, this was a weighted article written by a guy who runs a company that stands to benefit from the agenda he’s pushing. I agree there’s a problem and many of the core symptoms he laments are alive and well. But it’s soundly a people problem, not a problem with the medium and his answer serves only to muddy the waters further, not clear them up. His solution is not the answer and he’s attempting to solve the wrong problem, one no one asked to solve.

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