Musing about mail

I’ve been immensely frustrated with e-mail in enterprises over the years, for a variety of reasons:

  • Dangling Conversations, where an e-mail sent to a specific mail list then creates a number of partially-overlapping conversations as people subtract and add people to the list for random, often selfish reasons. Decision-making gets difficult as a result because the conversations are very dispersed
  • CC Riders, people who cover their fundaments by copying in the world and her husband, creating conversations that aren’t necessary in the first place, and overloading everyone in the process
  • Blind Trusters, who somehow convince themselves that having a conversation with one person while letting someone else in surreptitiously via bc is a good way of building trust. These things have a habit of biting back, which is a good thing.
  • Giant Haystacks, who habitually file everything, every version of everything, even e-mails they neither sent nor received. If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t, file it.
  • Needlepointers, who habitually look for e-mails in said haystacks, and manage to convince themselves that spending hours doing this is considered productive activity, while things like blogs aren’t…
  • Iceberg Lettuces, who regularly forward “private” conversations with adverse comments to the person the adverse comments were about, without realising what lay below the visible part of the iceberg. Enjoyable to watch but intrinsically unproductive; maybe more productive than the snide comments in the first place, but it’s a close call.
  • Oops-I-Did-It-Againers, who provide both laughs as well as immense frustration by unthinkingly Replying All in the most painful circumstances.

Of course we can set filters to solve some of this. Of course we can set policy to solve some of this. Of course we can educate to solve some of this.

Of course we are all addicted to all this.

And for some unknown reason, we are all programmed to “fix” mail rather than use tools that are more suited to the things we want to do. I still remember the reactions Stowe received when he first prophesied the death of e-mail. He might as well have declared that Pluto wasn’t a planet; this was some years ago :-)

With all this in mind, I loved seeing what Lars Plougmann had to say about e-mail and project management in mindthis, excerpted below:

  • 9 people read the email
  • 8 people file the email (in their private folders, thereby duplicating effort)
  • 7 people are interrupted in their work or thoughts when the email arrives
  • 6 people will never be able to find the email again
  • 5 people didn’t actually need to know about the change
  • 4 people joining the project in the next phase wouldn’t have received the email
  • 3 people will be able to find the email again, should they need to
  • 2 people will check back to the email at a later date when they need the information
  • 1 of them will understand the email in context, be able to find it at a later date and action it

Great stuff, Lars. And thanks to Kiyo for the heads-up.

12 thoughts on “Musing about mail”

  1. Your forgot patchinko-gurus, people who send a mail to someone they are sure can help – only that person can’t so they send it on to another who they think can help… and so it goes until eventually the mail arrives with the ‘right’ recipient or disappears into a hole

  2. I’m going to respond to Anne’s comment here in an attempt to keep all of the conversation in one place. Regarding this business of managing your own archives, I am reminded of an anecdote I heard about Igor Stravinsky when I was more serious about such things. Stravinsky once said that he always copied out his own scores and parts, because it was only during that act of copying that he would REALLY understand what he had composed. (Mind you, we have no reason to believe that Stravinsky really DID all of his own copy-work; but, in the tradition of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, the legend makes for a better story than the truth!) I cannot say that I LIKE managing my own archives, but I prefer doing it myself to entrusting it to another agent, software or human. My reasoning is similar to Stravinsky’s: I am the one who most needs to keep track of what is in those archives; so it is important that I am the one who visits (and revisits) that content as I decide HOW it will be archived. I may even reorganize the archives on some of these occasions. After all, any organization is arbitrary; so, at best, it reflects my worldview of perceptual categories at the time I organize it. If I am in charge of that organization and my worldview changes, then I can take responsibility for aligning the archive with my new worldview.

    Does this take time? Yes, but like copying out music it is time well spent. What is most important is that those archives remain of use to me. If this technique helps me keep the utility value up and fresh, then the investment in time is worth it!

  3. Anne, you make my point more eloquently than I could have. Your four criteria are from the viewpoint of the individual rather than the team; they do not make collaboration easier, they make the individual choice of participating in collaboration easier.

    Which is why I attacked enterprise e-mail, not e-mail. Building individual silos in enterprises is probably worse than the norm of building departmental or regional silos. E-mail, while sold as a productivity tool, may well improve the productivity of individuals. A moot point but one I am prepared to concede. But e-mail definitely does not improve the productivity of teams, for all the reasons I cited and many many more.

    In an enterprise I cannot choose what mail client I have; believe me, I have tried, and the problems I found were non-trivial. Interoperability of e-mail in an enterprise translates to “either you use the mail system we have or you get no mail”. Happy to explain this in more detail to you if you wish. Personalised organisation is also not that simple in enterprises, archival and vault-like policies are enterprisewide. The access control point you make is fine, but has no effect on bad replying and bad forwarding and mail-list breakups and all that jazz. And as far as the single point of information access is concerned, I cannot but agree. For one person. But for a team? Everyone with her or his copy, different versions stored multiple times in multiple places under multiple names.

    So you’re right. E-mail is a good enough collaboration tool. For individuals interacting with other individuals. Not for teams.

  4. It seems to me that blogs have thepotential to eliminate dangling conversations via the comment sections – I have certainly enhanced my learning this way and perhaps added to that of others on occasion.

  5. I’m still trying to work this bit out, John. How best to minimise dangling conversations, which can happen even in blogs.

    Things like tags help. Things like CoComment help. But there is an interesting tension.

    On the one hand, it is the freewheeling nature of the blog that makes a blog what it is, and induces the Snowball effect as Doc and George Lakoff suggested. This is rich and valuable. But new and uncomfortable, since it allows conversations to disperse.

    On the other hand, a move that suggests, even via etiquette, that you only comment on the blog of a “kernel-creator” is one that will keep all the control freaks happy, create single-threaded conversations, and probably recreate the bulletin board for all concerned.

    That is a retrograde step in my opinion.

    So we live with the tension. Allow people to take stories and make them their own. Allow links and “hat tips” and “heads ups” to happen almost serendipitously, in the belief that there will be an emergence effect and the wisdom of crowds will show.

    That’s what I’m going with. So I think of blog conversations as multiplying rather than fragmenting, with emergent wisdom-of-crowds effects moving the multiplied conversations around the blogosphere.

    That way we retain the rich freedom of blogs rather than the straitjacketedness of bulletin boards. I am sure there are people who will seek to convince me that a blog is a bulletin board, but so far I have not been convinced.

  6. You said it, Karen. Just what is that about? That’s why I get confused when people tell me that e-mail is a collaborative medium.

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