In the Knowledge Economy, E-mail Continues to Be Front and Center

Up, up, and away?

Just this morning I had a conversation with an executive at a major U.S. bank. She was deploring the fact that all employees had been told that their e-mail databases would be limited to the past six months of messages and that they could go through the older e-mail messages and save specific ones to files if they so desired.

I first wrote about Deleting E-mail, Deleting Knowledge over ten years ago, bemoaning the existence of arbitrary e-mail policies while emphasizing the need to make the knowledge contained in e-mail messages more available, not less.

Clearly, a decade later, some haven’t gotten the message. Frankly, I’m not sure why. Hard drives are bigger, storage is cheaper by several orders of magnitude, and we are using e-mail more than ever as a means of creating, distributing, and storing information.

Combine this with another e-mail problem: non-delivery of e-mail. I’m not talking about an outright delivery failure where the sender is notified. I’m referring to e-mail messages that just disappear.

Recently I had this happen twice, when I dispatched e-mail to colleagues and awaited a reply. From one, I received a phone call and from the other, an e-mail, both plaintively asking when I was going to send my e-mail.

In both cases, I sent a few test e-mail messages and none was received.

I referred both to their respective IT departments and, voilà, the problem was fixed.

In Fixing E-mail, I wrote about the problem that users face after sending an e-mail, namely that it is not really possible to track when the sender does not get a reply from the recipient. When I wrote this, I didn’t contemplate a situation where the e-mail simply disappeared into the ether. But, as I’ve discovered, not getting a reply to an e-mail can indeed be indicative of the fact that the e-mail never reached the intended recipient in the first place.

This is where it gets tricky. We can’t ask each recipient to confirm receipt of a message, nor can we call each recipient and say, “Hey, did you just get my e-mail?”. Knowledge workers are already busy with the e-mail already in their inbox (at the rate of 93 e-mail messages per day, which is what the average knowledge worker receives, this is over 22,000 e-mail messages a year and that number is growing).

So what do I see as potential solutions? On the deletion front, recognizing the value of the knowledge stored in older e-mail by changing policies would be a good first step. On the problem of disappearing e-mail as well as tracking whether a reply to a particular e-mail has been forthcoming, hopefully someone reading this can come up with a tool that will help resolve the issue.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. He can be reached at jspira@basex.com

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