Email: Trustworthy, Multipurpose, Overwhelming

We’ve been thinking a lot about email recently, kicked off initially by Andrew Mcfee’s recent MIT Sloan Management Review piece Enterprise 2.0 on the use of social software such as blogs and wikis within organisations (thanks Maish). His piece sparked off a debate of viral proportions, summarised neatly here (thanks James via Maish).

Mcfee points out that knowledge work is primarily done through two types of technology: channels (communication technologies such as email, messaging, telephone) and platforms (such as intranets, document management systems, portals, fileservers). He quotes Tom Davenport’s research to show that email is the master of the universe so far as knowledge work is concerned, and content based platforms almost insignificant by comparison.

At the same time, this mish mash of activities (communicating, instructing, informing, influencing, arguing, negotiating, sharing, attaching, collaborating, coordinating, enclosing, referring, announcing, copying, demonstrating political alliegances etc etc) intermingling functional work, content sharing and communication, in an almost entirely unstructured, unmanaged and irretrievably idiosyncratic way, makes email both confusing and overwhelming.

We’ve been doing a few projects looking at email communication patterns across large organisations using Inflow, a social network analysis tool, and you can actually see the kind of organisational pressures this exerts in the maps that emerge: departments that are effectively machine-gunning everybody with information, while simultaneously everybody complains about not being informed; managers who only read emails from certain people because they need to get some sleep every couple of days; divisions that simply cannot pay sufficient attention to each other even though they should be collaborating, because they are competing for attention with all the other divisions themselves. Lots of broadcast and very little listening, which comes from trying to do too much through one narrow channel.

McFee’s argument is that the newer “social” technologies such as blogs, group messaging and wikis, can help separate out different functions through different channels, and make some sense of the confusing melee that email now represents. There’s lots of debate about this, but it’s worth wondering why email has become such a multipurpose tool. One insight into this came through a couple of years ago in a piece of research done by Cornell University into the frequency of fibbing via different communications media (thanks Rosanna via com-prac).

It turns out that the probability of people lying is inhibited by three factors: asynchrony (not communicating at the same time); co-presence (being in the same place at the same time); recordability (whether a permanent record of the communication is kept). Co-presence and recordability are pretty obvious: it’s harder to lie face to face, or if a record of your lie will be kept. Asynchrony inhibits lying, because apparently it’s easier to lie spontaneously, but asynchronously (as in an email) you have to plan it pretty carefully.

In the Cornell research, the frequency of lying was as follows:

37% by telephone
27% face to face
21% by instant messaging
14% by email

Email was considered more reliable because it has two out of three inhibiting factors, asynchrony and recordability. No wonder we trust it to do more stuff. Too much stuff. So if we do want to simplify the email confusion, the big question will be whether viable alternates to email will both:

perform the functions we want to separate out from email
and reassure us with the trustworthiness of email.

My bets would be on blogs having an edge over wikis or group messaging. Wikis, because they are alterable (even though you can trace historical evolution of the text, it would be troublesome to trace complex and frequent revisions); group messaging because they are synchronous (although you can have transcripts).

2 Comments so far

Once, I was at my client’s office when I noticed that the executive assistant had instant messaging on her desktop. I asked her what she used it for, and she said she used it to get quick help from other executive assistants. She said that in an organisation where you had to “write a paper to get paper”, it was easier and faster to get support from her own network. “Today I spare you some flipchart paper, tomorrow you spare me some markers”. I was impressed. These folks had found a way to work around the bureaucracy, and inadvertantly a way of optimising the organisation’s resources. A few months later, I found out that the organisation had banned instant messaging. The people I talked to couldn’t explain the rationale behind the new policy, but I think there’re possibly 2 main reasons behind the ban. One, the organisation couldn’t manage instant messaging like they “manage” email. Two, the organisation did not trust their own employees to not abuse instant messaging ("What if they use it for idle chit-chat?"). For the same reasons, organisations (some, not all) will find it hard to deploy blogs. You can’t manage what employees will say in a bona fide corporate blog, and you certainly have to trust your employees not to use blogs for their “evil” ends. How many organisations we know are secure enough for that?

Posted on April 28, 2006 at 11:16 AM | Comment permalink

Somehow the phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” comes to mind. When people have one tool, they try and think up ways of using that one same tool for multiple purposes.  I guess it is a way of saving time and money.

Before web-enabled technologies came along, one oganisation had elecronic Teamrooms which were introduced in 1997.  The e-Teamrooms were intended for team collaboration purposes. It required the setting up of the team profile (team objective, members, etc) and the categories to be used in TeamRoom ie. based on the team’s work.
It had a “Comment” feature for people to comment on documents posted and comment on comments and back in 1997, that was certainly considered cool. However, no one used it for collaboration. They were used purely as document repositories, first by project teams, then divisional groups, then the organisation at large. 

The “Comment” feature had faded into oblivion although it is still very much there on the screen. No one appreciated the threaded discussion representation because there were no comments to show this up. It was just not the culture to post comments online. But the Teamrooms were considered useful because staff could now access documents easily, they just needed to remember which TeamRoom to look into. At least documents weren’t getting lost in email.

It occurred then that they could format a table in the e-TeamRoom document, open access to the entire organization and have people update the one and same document.  Hence, they were used as a way of getting peope to sign up for briefings and other events. No longer would collation of responses be required.  It was clearly useful as a registration channel.

It was soon discovered that they could create a nice poster in the TeamRoom, create a document link and send it via email to everyone. So emails no longer needed to carry the heavy graphics (much to the joy of the CIO) and still be effective as a publicity and announcement channel.

I guess the point I’m making is that at that time, TeamRooms was all they had, apart from email of course. However, the TeamRooms were used for purposes other than what they were designed for - but it worked and it became so popular in the organisation.

I agree that we need to avoid the confusion from using email as the one channel for all communication, but I also think that for this organisation at least, anything new that comes along ought to be as good if not better than their TeamRooms.

Posted on April 28, 2006 at 01:04 PM | Comment permalink

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