E-mail Management?

A recent Wall Street Journal by reporter Vauhini Vara addressed a problem that all of us are familiar with: e-mail overload.  The article correctly points out that employees waste time separating the wheat from the chaff in their inboxes.  Oftentimes important e-mail messages are overlooked – or accidentally deleted as spam.  As mail volume increases, mail servers slow down, causing delays that rival the postal service’s.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking into this issue in the past year, working on both research reports and my book, Managing the Knowledge Workforce: Understanding the Information Revolution That’s Changing the Business World.  When it comes to e-mail, nothing is clear cut.  But e-mail is undeniably an important corporate asset and needs to be treated and managed appropriately.  The tips Vara included on how to “tame” the e-mail “monster” actually raised several red flags.  As the New Year approaches, it is appropriate to review best practices, so here is a recap and analysis that should serve as a guide to the perplexed.

1.)    Tip: Get rid of spam and install a spam filter on the mail server.
It’s actually better practice to put up a specialized firewall, such as an IronPort C Series, that doesn’t let spam into a corporate network.  Since spam e-mail represents well over 50% of all e-mail traffic, letting spam in the door (so to speak) creates storage and performance issues.

2.)    Tip: Manage attachments – save them to a local drive.  Send big documents via snail mail.
Local hard disks are often not backed up, and sometimes e-mail is the only file store that does have a backup.  If users delete attachments and rely on a local drive that could fail, they are courting disaster.  With respect to quotas, companies that impose size limitations are penny wise and pound foolish.  I have written extensively on this issue but to summarize, one must keep in mind that e-mail has become – for better or for worse – the world wide filing cabinet.  We wouldn’t go through our old fashioned cabinets shredding, just to ensure we have enough drawer space.  Why do that in e-mail?  So much of a company’s knowledge is found in e-mail yet so little of it is recognized.  In addition, sending someone a large document via snail mail means that the recipient will not be able to make edits or comments in the file – this contravenes the purpose of e-mail and is likely to frustrate the recipient.

3.)    Tip: Use free E-mail.
Most people have trouble managing one e-mail account; users who have multiple accounts seem to never know where to look for things.  I don’t disagree that one should separate personal from business if one’s personal use of e-mail is extensive, but some people take this to extremes.

4.)    Tip: Use IM (instead of E-mail for quick questions and immediate attention).
Vara states that instant messages aren’t stored on the company’s server (she doesn’t specify the type of server) and this is often not the case.  IM gateway platforms from companies such as Akonix, FaceTime, and IMlogic allow companies to manage employee use of public IM networks, and log transcripts of sessions.

5.)    Tip: Delete frequently.
I agree with deleting intermediate copies of a conversation in e-mail; but some people are delete happy and will end up deleting too much.

6.)    Tip: Get organized.
Vara suggests organizing e-mail messages by priority, topic, or sender.  The amount of time knowledge workers might devote to filing and organizing might best be left to knowledge work.  Studies have shown that few people look in folders once things are filed.  I find having powerful search trumps filing by folders – I can find anything I am looking for in seconds.

This column appears in the last issue of Basex:TechWatch for 2004.  The new year, 2005, is within reach and throughout the world, knowledge workers are making their New Year’s resolutions.  Let me take this opportunity to wish you, dear reader, a happy and prosperous New Year, or as we say in my family, Prosit Neujahr!  Finally, for a New Year’s treat, join the Vienna Philharmonic for their New Year’s Day concert from the majestic Musikverein in Vienna with host Walter Cronkite, broadcast to millions of viewers around the world, and viewable in the United States on PBS Saturday afternoon.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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