Viewpoint -- E-mail's Dark Side

Sometimes a godsend turns into a demon.

It's hard to believe a mere six or seven years ago most of us were not using e-mail. Today we simply can't do our jobs without it. Consider the panic that sets in when, for some reason, we are unable to retrieve our new messages. I don't have any statistics on this, but I'm guessing stalled e-mail is one of the top calls corporate IT help lines receive. E-mail has become so ubiquitous in business that it is the subject of research and consult -- we are now paying people to tell us how best to manage our ever-burgeoning electronic in-box. Of course, there are countless examples of how e-mail has improved efficiencies and enabled new business practices. We can keep in touch with our customers and one another better; we can communicate a corporate-wide message instantly; we can hold discussions with associates around the globe without leaving our offices. And those are just the obvious examples. I'm sure unique problems have been solved and opportunities realized via e-mail for many companies. But like many good things, e-mail has a dark side. Most noticeably, it can hamper productivity when abused. Consider this recent press release headline from Framingham, Mass.-based high-tech research house IDC: "E-mail Deluge Continues With No End In Sight." According to IDC, the number of e-mails sent on an average day is expected to hit 10 billion worldwide this year. By 2005 that number will triple, the researchers say. "Like heavy rain, escalating e-mail usage can be a blessing or a curse depending upon how prepared we and our environments are," says Mark Levitt, a research director at IDC. "Effective planning for access, routing, storage, scanning, and related solutions for dealing with the e-mail deluge requires a deep understanding of how e-mail usage will evolve over time." (IDC, which uses e-mail heavily to promote its products and reports, has a research study on e-mail for sale.) Putting aside the technological problems that excessive e-mail can cause, I see several behaviors, that if collectively adopted, could make e-mail less of a time and productivity hog: Use of proper e-mail etiquette: I once read that among the Web subcultures that use e-mail and chat rooms for personal voyeurism, misspellings, poor grammar, and rudeness are valued for their "authenticity." That doesn't fly in a business setting. Buy a dictionary. Proof your messages. Use salutations. Be brief and clear. Sign your name. Doing these things shows you respect the recipient's position and time. When I receive an e-mail from a stranger who doesn't introduce himself, sign his name, or indicate clearly why he has contacted me, I then must take time to figure these things out. Send your message to key people only: Does every person on your cc:mail list have to be there? One of the most insipid things about e-mail is its ability to include people in discussions, problems, and issues simply because they receive an e-mail -- not because they are key to those discussions, problems, and issues. Back in the old days, when such things were addressed with memos that had to be prepared, copied, and placed in mail-boxes, more thought went into this issue. Today it's so easy to include people in an e-mail, senders tend to do it without thinking. I had a vice president complain to me recently that one day she was in the e-mail crossfire of a heated discussion between two of her supervisors. They cc'd her on their electronic exchange all day. Finally, she called them both into a conference room, told them not to return to their computers until they had reached a compromise verbally, and left. Ignore your e-mail: Humans haven't changed much since e-mail was invented. The ability of our brains to process multiple unrelated ideas simultaneously is limited. We all know this, and we all know how we feel when we've gone a whole day without completing a single task. Sometimes we need to ignore our e-mail. Believe me, if God is going to reveal when the last day of creation is, it's not going to come via e-mail. So go ahead and ignore that blinking icon. You should devise your own safeguards for doing this -- perhaps checking in on e-mail only at certain times of the day, or setting preferences so that you are alerted when your boss e-mails you, but not when Lenny from X-rated.com spams you. Choose technology based on your needs: Do you need to use an instant message program? Do you need to receive your e-mail on a wireless device? Perhaps you think you really do need such technology to do your job; but chances are you don't. Sure it's whiz-bang. Sure everyone seems to be using it. But do you need to? Some of my peers have been trying to get me to go the instant message route recently. They can handle -- and even seem to welcome -- the constant interruption. But it's not for me. I know my limits, and I've reached them. Taking on technology that you don't need is a major productivity drain. It's O.K. to say no as long as you are comfortable with technology that is necessary to do your job. These behavioral changes won't keep all the useless mail from entering your in-box, but they could at least stem it. Along with IDC, I recently witnessed this prediction about how much e-mail we will be receiving in the future: My three-year-old son -- who is a smart little guy but still needs someone to feed, clothe, and bathe him -- recently went to the computer keyboard and started typing away while intently looking at the screen. When I asked what he was doing, he said calmly, "I'm checking my e-mail, Mom."

Tonya Vinas is New Media Editor for IndustryWeek.com and IWValueChain.com. She can be reached at [email protected].

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