E-mail, weapon of mass distraction

E-mail is probably the most widely adopted but inefficient way of managing work ever invented. Will it ever be relegated to the sidelines of the modern office?

If you were to look at my e-mail inbox, you’d see a rainbow array of flags, various folders into which I attempt to organize streams of conversations, ideas, and projects, reminders pop up from my calendar reminding me to do everything from make a telephone call to pick up dry cleaning.

Woe is me the day that the network crashes and I can’t access my Outlook.

And it sounds like I’m not alone.


"If you think about it, the most popular BPM tool out there is Microsoft Outlook," Forrester Research Analyst Clay Richardson recently told the PexNetwork. "People run their processes through e-mail." (Hear the original interview here )

The trouble with Outlook and e-mail in general, says Richardson, is that it gives us no context, and doesn’t help us make better decisions about how to manage our work. "What I really want my e-mail to do is tell me, what is, right now, the most important thing to do?" Richardson says, "I want my e-mail to be smart."

Consultant Daniel Dunne, writing on a EndUserSharePoint.com takes criticism of e-mail one step further and cautions that using it as part of your processes can easily descend into chaos.

"The moment that any recurring sequence of a value chain includes emailing someone and expecting an email response in order to continue, it becomes untraceable, immeasurable, and effectively out of control," he wrote in a recent article on SharePoint End Users Forum.

The impact is felt not only in terms of process inefficiency, but also adds to increased stress and distraction among the workforce.

A few years ago, for instance, there were well publicized cases of people declaring "e-mail bankruptcy," the digital communication version of walking away and dropping the keys through the mail slot.

The Washington Post reported that several high profile figures – from venture capitalists, university professors, to recording artist Moby – had walked away from the constant stream of information pouring in through their mailboxes.

"I am so far behind on e-mail that I am declaring bankruptcy," wrote venture capitalist Fred Wilson in a post on the Internet, according to Washington Post. "If you've sent me an e-mail (and you aren't my wife, partner, or colleague), you might want to send it again. I am starting over."

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum, are those of us who are quite literally unhealthily addicted to e-mail. A New York Times article earlier this year, "Your Brain on Computers – Attached to Technology and Paying a Price", for instance, reads like an indictment of the modern information age.

"Information bursts," such as receiving an e-mail (but could also include Twitter, Facebook status updates, etc.), release "dopamine spurts" into the brain, according to the article, to which people can become quite literally addicted. In the absence of these bursts of information, people can feel bored, irritable, and disconnected. Further, researchers say that the modern era of hyper activity and multi tasking is "rewiring" our brains, and affecting our concentration and focus.

So, inefficient work process, inability to track progress, stress, feeling overwhelmed, e-mail-addled-information-overloaded brains - are all these symptoms just something that knowledge workers need to put up with?

It doesn’t need to be that way.

There’s a whole host of vendors offering products - IBM Lotus, Microsoft SharePoint 2010, JIVE, Cisco’s Quad, Nimbus Control, to name but a few – that attempt to offer a different way of structuring processes that require flexibility.

Oracle, for instance, claims that its "BPM suite 11g's unstructured process support enables reassignment, rerouting, and delegation of tasks, while supporting the dynamic addition of participants anywhere in the task routing flow."

One of the developments that holds some promise in weaning people off of excessive e-mail use is the incorporation of social media principles to BPM technology. It also has the additional benefit of enabling better sharing of information and knowledge.

That’s precisely the development that Keith Swenson, Vice President of Research and Development at Fujitsu America, envisions. He says, for instance, that we’re going to see new enterprise technology bring together elements of project management and elements of social media.

Enterprise Social Software, he says, "looks a lot like Facebook and it looks a lot like Twitter, but it’s safe for the enterprise."

He points to the example of Chatter as one of the best examples of this, essentially an enterprise social networking system that runs alongside Salesforce.com CRM.

But so far, we’ve not seen the killer app that provides the definitive alternative to e-mail.

So, in the meantime, I’ve got to run as a reminder has just popped up on my Outlook and I’ve got a few e-mail flags to clear before the end of the day….