Last week I deleted over 16,000 emails from my deleted items folder. I then deleted around 4,000 from my inbox. As of writing I still have 4,303 unread emails in my inbox. Clearly this is crazy.
The humble email, a tool which started out as a thing of wonder in the 1990s as news of Auntie Brenda’s latest escapades in Australia arrived in the blink of an eye, has turned into a reply-all nightmare.
It's used, abused and misused for everything from ‘Friday night drinks?!!’ organised by that wacky girl from marketing, to ‘Whoever left their dirty plates in the kitchen please clean them up’ from the strange chap in sales.
Marketing emails from some website you were foolish enough to give your email address to persist for years, no matter how regularly you reply ‘UNSUBSCRIBE’ or hurl the Spam Server of Doom into the sea, only to find it waiting for you blinking away on the shoreline.
Worse than the irritation this causes, though, is the way it slows businesses down. Everyone will know the confusion and headaches that come with endless email chains that spread faster than an epidemic.
They begin earnestly enough. Someone emails a bunch of people with their thoughts on a new marketing idea, or a sales project, or a big new initiative.
Then, as you’re reading through, someone replies, so you read that, and then someone else replies, and then you decide to reply but before you do, three more emails have arrived and your response appears idiotic.
Then someone else replies questioning something from the original email, but without making clear which bit they're referring to, so someone else has to ask.
Then someone else replies: ‘Please remove me from this email thread.' And on it goes.
It’s too much. The email is a wonderful tool, and obviously remains important to the business world for all sorts of reasons, but there is now a world of collaboration tools out there, from Slack and Box to Cisco and Yammer, that cover everything from instant messaging and chat to document editing and news sharing.
Literally as I write this, Dropbox has just begun signing people up for a new service called Paper for live document collaboration. Clearly there is no lack of tools out there that savvy, digital businesses can use to improve their workflows.
The benefits of such tools versus emails are clear. Information does not stack up on chat services, but replaces itself and comes in a single-pane view so that it's easy to keep track of who is saying what.
If something changes in a document, everyone sees the new information instantly as it's added. They can see who it was by and, crucially, add their own input in real time, rather than having to begin composing an email, only for another email to arrive.
These are not just nice-to-have features, but the sort of thing that can dramatically improve an organisation's performance.
I recently spoke to the CIO of Oxfam who explained that he signed a deal to use Box so that staff around the world can collaborate more effectively, with clear benefits.
Originally, staff arriving in a disaster zone would share information such as the facilities that remained operational, who was on the scene, what supplies were must urgently needed and so on, via email.
This was hugely inefficient as it meant that staff had to send multiple emails as the disaster evolved, and those reading the emails often had to wade through several messages before they were finally made aware of the current situation.
Box allows staff to upload this information to a single location and share it with those who need to see it. So those who log-on subsequently are always seeing the most up-to-date information.
This may be an extreme example, but these types of benefit hold true for many other organisations that will have staff drowning under the weight of emails who could work so much more efficiently by embracing a mix of collaboration tools.
The trouble is that email is a cultural thing. People justify what they're doing by sending, receiving and writing emails. We need to recognise that other, better tools exist for many of the things we do by email.
I’m not saying there's no place for email in the business world, far from it, but attitudes must move beyond using email for everything and start to consider how other tools that offer more benefits can be incorporated into our everyday working lives to improve business workflows and keep us sane.
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