How to Succeed in E-mail Reduction Without Really Trying

Luis Suarez, an IBM employee, threw off the shackles of e-mail, reducing the volume of e-mail he receives by 80% as reported in an article he penned for the New York Times.

But the story of Luis Suarez is a cautionary one.  Yes, with careful planning and negotiation, one can rid oneself of e-mail.

It’s important, however, not to throw the baby out with the bath water here.  There are a lot of good things about e-mail and how we use it (it’s less intrusive, we don’t have to respond in real time, we document what we are saying) – and there are some not-so-good things as well (we obsess over it, we feel compelled to respond in real time, we send too much of it, we cc and bcc too much, we just don’t know when to stop replying).

E-mail has become a critical tool in the knowledge economy arsenal, yet it’s also a subject of derision.

Why?

Because we simply don’t know how to manage our own use of it and how to use it intelligently.

The research we’ve done here at Basex, covered by the Times most recently here (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/technology/14email.html?scp=1&sq=BASEX&st=nyt), shows that we lose a great deal to poorly thought-out use of a variety of tools, including e-mail, telephone, instant messaging, and so on.

We constantly use the various tools at our disposal to interrupt one another – incessantly.  Send an e-mail?  Better call or IM to make sure it got there.  Received an advisory e-mail?  Make sure to say “thanks” to the sender – and might as well reply-to-all so everyone can see how we’re on top of things.

For a variety of reasons (some of which I covered in my book Managing the Knowledge Workforce), we work with the presumption that everything we are sending or saying is both important and urgent at the same time.  That means that we hold the tasks the recipient of our missives is undertaking as being of lesser importance.

We also seek instant gratification (a phenomenon I traced back to the advent of Fedex in April 1973).  We want everything “absolutely, positively” now.  Even overnight isn’t good enough anymore.

We’ve only been using these tools (e-mail, mainly) for a decade or two – we didn’t figure things out in the industrial economy until we hit the 150-year mark.

We’ll simply need to make adjustments as we go along.

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

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