Two simple tips to reduce email


For all the new developments in communications involving social media tools, email continues to be a daily burden for most information and knowledge-based roles. And mobile devices ensure we can access it (just about) anywhere. Here are two simple tips that could help significantly reduce the volume of email at work and free up time to go do something more interesting instead. (Brits of a certain age should start humming ‘Why don’t you..?’) Genuine spam emails… well that’s a whole other matter. But there really is no excuse for business spam draining productivity.

1. Change the channel

The first tip is technology-focused. Change the medium. Email is great for person-to-person questions and answers, and prompts that don’t require an instant response. If somebody is busy with something else, all email can wait. But at least it is stacked up in a neat digital pile waiting to be dealt with. But many communications do require an instant response and work is increasingly collaborative beyond two people. Relying on email for these scenarios creates unnecessary overheads and distractions.

Two channels can help reduce ineffective email: instant messaging and enterprise social networks.

Instant messaging trumps email when an instant response is needed. Presence status (online or offline) gives an immediate indication of the likelihood of getting a response – you only message with people who are currently online. This saves sending an email out to multiple people, only for all  but one to find out they didn’t need to bother reading it because the one had already provided a response. Instant messaging can also be used for 1:1 and group-based chats. Sessions can be recorded if the content has any value for non-participants to view on-demand later. But instant messaging is at its best for rapid real-time interactions. Answer the question, close the chat window and move on, no need to file the outcome.

Enterprise social networks (ESN) trump email for conversations involving more than two participants, providing an organised threaded conversation that new members can easily join and catch-up on what has already been said or shared.  ESNs can be updated in real-time like instant messaging, but can also pause whilst people get on with other matters, later returning to check on updates and comment if necessary. They can be tagged, making it easier to find and join discussions, and avoid duplicating the same conversation in multiple different silo’d groups, as can often happen when using email.

2. Change behaviour

The second tip is people-focused. Change habits. Whilst many people are quick to moan about how many unnecessary emails they receive at work, they are often as guilty as the next person for adding to the overload. Are people hitting ‘cc-all/reply-all’ because they think everyone needs to be informed of the response or because they want to be seen to be communicating? How many emails are sent out in bulk ‘for information purposes’. All of those should be up on an intranet, not bouncing around messaging networks. Use email for the exceptions, the alerts, the prods where action is required from that specific individual, the recipient of the email.

A simple rule of thumb – if people are setting up rules to automatically route incoming emails of a certain type to a certain folder, that email isn’t worth sending.

The quickest and easiest way to reduce email within an organisation is to start at the top, with management. If people are suffering from the ‘cover your arse’ syndrome that is cc-all/reply-all, that’s a management issue. If people are distributing out standard reports and updates where no action is required, that’s a management issue. And the excuse is always the same: ‘…it’s the way things are done around here’. So to change is simple. Get managers to stop doing it and others will soon follow.

And if you don’t believe me, a report has been produced by other consultants who have found exactly the same outcome and quantified the results. As reported in the Harvard Business Review last month. Targeting just the senior management team within an organisation, the goal was to cut their email output by 20% within four months. Within three months, total email output from the group had dropped by 54% and the ripple effects led to a 64% drop across all employees.

The report can be viewed online: To Reduce E-mail, Start at the Top – Harvard Business Review, September 2013

And for those Brits of a certain age, the rest of that tune…

Smashing up TVs, using knives unsupervised, preparing food without wearing gloves… how did we make it to adulthood 🙂

Flickr image: Checking Email kindly shared under Creative Commons by Brian Legate

Blogging mistakes help improve policy

A mini-furore erupted on Twitter this week, when a Twitter developer tweeted about “some nifty site features” in development on the internal version of Twitter that could impact third party solutions. GigaOM has a good post documenting it all, and the title says it all – Twitter Staffer Stops Blogging After Backlash

The interesting part and reason for this post:

So did the Twitter incident cause Payne to stop blogging? He says in his final blog post that while he intended the personal blog to be a place where he could talk about ideas, his posts had started to “spark whole conversations that I never intended to start in the first place…”

It’s an issue that many organisations worry about when embarking on a social media strategy – what if an employee gives out information they shouldn’t? How do you control the message? And the simple answer is you can’t. How you react is another matter entirely.

Back when I worked at Microsoft, a great mentor told me about a case study he had researched as part of his management studies. A Japanese manufacturer, through human error, experienced a serious problem in their production line. Serious enough to damage both the stock price and reputation of the brand (as well as cost a small fortune in lost inventory and wasted resources). The person at fault offered his resignation. In many organisations he would have been fired before having the chance to volunteer. His resignation was refused. The CEO was asked why (when interviewed for the case study). His response went along the lines:

What would I gain from firing him? The problem still needed fixing and he was a good employee, who would have gone to one of my competitors. I didn’t fire him, I promoted him and put him in charge of not only fixing the problem but improving the process… (spotting the mistake sooner would have cost less)

Pity politics doesn’t work this way…

If you’re a good person (I do believe that applies to the majority) and you screw up, you learn a hard lesson very fast but it is not one you will quickly forget. And having learned the lesson through bitter experience, you have a vested interest in seeing the problem fixed and helping others avoid falling down the same rabbit hole. It’s simply adding another mistake to the pile if that experience is ignored or lost out the door.

There’s an old ‘techie’ quote about hard disk failures and the importance of back-ups: there are those who have lost their data and those who have yet to… Organisations wanting to embrace social media but worrying about the ‘what if…?’ need to do two things:

  1. Implement a policy and training programme, even if it’s just lunch briefings, to ensure everyone understands their responsibilities when discussing company information in any pubic forum, social or otherwise.
  2. Have a procedure for how to handle the inevitable mistakes. Step 1: Identify the type of mistake – is it a disgruntled employee deliberately trying to cause damage or (far more likely) human error. Do not treat them as the same thing.

Related posts:

Amateurism can win battles

This Monday’s Start the Week programme on Radio 4 included an interesting discussion about amateurism during World War II, or as it was titled: ‘The dodgy dossier that fooled Hitler’. The short version (I’d encourage you to listen to the podcast, details at the end of the post):

In 1943, allied troops were in North Africa waiting for orders to attack in Europe. If you looked at a map it was pretty obvious where the attack would start – Sicily. To try and gain the upper hand, an elaborate hoax was put in place to try and convince Hitler that instead of Sicily, the attack was going to begin from Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean and Sardinia in the West. This involved procuring a dead person in London, covering up the fact he had died of poisoning to instead make it look like he died in an air crash, dropping him in the sea to float ashore at a specific location in Southern Spain where intercepted messages suggested a particular German secret agent was operating. The false documents planted on the body should hopefully be discovered by said agent, be identified as real battle plans and hopefully be passed up the chain of command to the very top.

The whole idea sounds like some ridiculous plot in a work of fiction. There are far too many variables and dependencies that could go wrong.  And worst of all, if the German secret agent was not fooled by the fake documents, it would beyond doubt confirm Sicily as the real location and likely double Hitler’s efforts there. In short, the plan had as much chance of making matters worse as making them better.

The plan worked.

Listen to the podcast to hear more about it, including “although World War II claimed more lives than any other conflict in history, finding the right dead body was incredibly difficult…” it’s a great conversation. But what’s interesting, and the reason for this post, was a comment made towards the end of the story:

“If Churchill hadn’t been such an enthusiast for this sort of operation and given them full rein…In a way it’s a celebration of amateurism, they were allowed to think what ever they wanted and try it out.”

An Admiral commented about the plan “You can rely on the enemy’s ‘yesmanship’ and ‘wishfulness’”

How many leaders today be prepared to take such a leap of faith? The preference is to rely on statistics and follow standard procedures over ideas and instincts. A simple example was reported this week. Somebody tweeted they were going to blow up their local airport. When discovered by the police, they were arrested under the Terror Act, have had their phone and laptop confiscated, received a lifetime ban from said airport, and been suspended from work until it is decided whether or not they will be prosecuted.  The missing piece of context from this story: just before the alleged bomb threat, the person had been tweeting their frustration with the snow and how it was ruining their holiday plans because the local airport was closed. It was a stupid joke in the current climate. But really, how long should it have taken for someone to decide if this was a serious terrorist threat or not versus following the standard ‘send in the cavalry’ procedure. Our officials are becoming yes-folk. And that puts us at more risk, not less…

The danger in relying on process and statistics at the expense of ideas and instincts is you risk missing the threat in front of your eyes. Perhaps we should bring a bit of amateurism, or humanism, back into official processes.

For the rest of this week (until January 25th) you can download a copy of the programme via iTunes or listen using BBC’s iPlayer


Misleading Analogies

In the first issues of Wired UK (May 2009), there is an article by Baroness Susan Greenfield ‘What are we expecting from consciousness?’ It might have been better titled ‘Why technologists should butt out of my playground’ 🙂 but that’s not quite the focus here.

There is no doubting that Baroness Greenfield is a highly intelligent person. The trouble with some highly intelligent people is their habit of dumbing down statements in an attempt to explain ‘their stuff’ to mere mortals like me. And the worst habits involve misleading analogies. Baroness Greenfield dismisses the need to attempt to model consciousness:

“The idea of a model is that you focus on the salient features and jettison the extraneous ones. A model for flight, as exemplified by an aeroplane, would simply be the defying of gravity. We can leave out the feathers and beak.”

“So if we are to model consciousness, then we would have to know what the salient physical brain/body process(es) was/were and what bits of the brain and body we could ignore. The thing is, if we knew that, than we would have already solved the problem and there would be no need to bother with a model at all.”

The analogy fails. If you compare an aeroplane with a bird, then actually it does have comparible features (those required for flight). The beak is the hole where you insert the hose from the fuel tanker (birds eat worms, a beak is not an effective design for consuming gasoline). The feathers are required by the bird for lift, speed and direction. (A bird with just the skeleton of their wings is going nowhere). Aeroplanes have man-made wings with flaps instead of organic wings made up of skeleton, muscle and feather.

And the argument for not needing a model fails too. Models can serve two purposes – prove a theory or prove a concept based on a theory. The former is used to learn, the latter to apply. With Baroness Greenfield’s argument, we would have never invented aeroplanes at all, we would have just understood how birds fly (‘problem solved’). Progress comes from applying what we know, not just knowing.

That all said, I actually agree with her rebuttal of technologists like Ray Kurzeil claiming computers will surpass human consciousness within the next few decades. Advances in current technology alone are unlikely to achieve such a goal. Even if we could model consciousness, the application will almost certainly be very different to what humans do, just as aeroplanes fly in a very different manner and for a different purpose to what birds do…

Related posts: Do books matter? (Don’t think Baroness Greenfield is a fan of technology)

Delicious tags: brain mind

Advanced Savers

I try to use trains a lot (even more so now, thanks to rising fuel prices) and there is one pattern in particular that really irritates me. Regardless of train operator, it appears all ticket collectors have been on the same ‘How to reduce your passenger levels’ training course.

The announcement overheard today went along the lines (the train was about to depart the station):

“If you have an Advanced Saver ticket, it must be for this train. The departure time will be printed on your ticket. If your ticket is for a different time it will not be valid. You will be required to purchase a new ticket for this journey if you choose to stay on the train.”

In other words, get off the damn train if you bought a cheap ticket and it wasn’t for this time.

Now, to be fair, the rules are pretty clear when you purchase Advanced Saver tickets. But here’s the irony. This train was the last one before rush hour started. There were all of 5 people in my carriage. Why oh why would the train operator want to throw people off an empty train? It creates the double-whammy of saving nothing (the reduced weight is unlikely to make a dent on the amount of fuel used to run the train) and potentially adding to over-crowding on the next train, exacerbated by a bunch of pissed off customers.

By all means, have the rule. But for goodness sake, allow the ticket collectors to use their brains. If the train is empty, turn a blind eye. Gently remind the passenger about the rules and make it clear that an exception can be made this time only because the train isn’t full. You have happy customers and more space available on the next train, which might be busier than yours. If the train is full, enforce the rule to the letter. That’s only fair to those who have paid for tickets specifically for this train.

I love what technology can do to make systems better. But oh so often, there are simple changes you can make to improve services, sales and profits. And they cost nothing at all.

English sheep and Indian fishermen

Or rather, how mobile technologies are enabling better supply chain management in rural India than in not-so-rural England.

Whilst listening to a MIX08 session online – I Wanna Go Mobile – the host, Michael Platt, retold a story about Indian fishermen benefitting from mobile technologies. In the past, rural villages along the coast of India relied on their local fishermen for food. Without enough fish, people starved. With too many fish, food was wasted. Thanks to mobile phones, there are now fish merchants along the coast. When the fishermen catch more fish than their local village needs, they can contact the merchants and sell their surplus. A simple solution and everyone benefits.

In the same week, I discovered sheep in England eating chocolate fudge. When a certain will-remain-unnamed retail organisation orders too much food, they have an arrangement with a company to remove the surplus on a daily basis. Doesn’t matter what the surplus is, it must be gone instantly. This isn’t food that has gone past its sell-by date. Presumably it’s more efficient to get rid of excess stock than to store it in warehouses. And that’s fair enough. But, with our government spending a whopping 50p per school dinner, wouldn’t you think we could come up with a better method for distributing edible surplus stock?

Technorati tag: mobile technology

Competition vs Opposition

Fabulous article in the February issue of Harvard Business Review print ed. (Actually, there’s a few.) The opening line:

“Top executives are good at competing, but when they come up against opposition rather than competition, they flounder.”

A simple example from the article. When Coca-cola battled Pepsi to get their soft-drink vending machines into schools, that’s competition. When parents decided they didn’t want soft-drink vending machines in schools, that’s opposition. (At least one of the soft-drink companies started producing bottled water…)

I can think of another example. Get ready to fall over in shock and surprise… Microsoft. Microsoft is usually at its best when competing, preferably against an established player. (Increasingly hard to do, when you’re the world’s largest software company.) Microsoft is rubbish at coping with opposition. Probably because it doesn’t happen very often. The last time they really faced opposition, it was called Netscape. The solution? Create a near-identical product and compete. Say hello to Internet Explorer. (We’ll not get into a debate about whether the tactics used to compete were fair). The opposition this time around? Google. Microsoft’s tactic? Same as before – turn opposition into competition. Round 1: Try and build a near-identical service. That hasn’t gone so well so far. Round 2: “Hmmm, who could we buy to achieve our goal…” 🙂

Trying to tackle opposition by getting into their space and competing head-on doesn’t always work. Worse still, it can be a disaster. Instead, the article advocates turning the tables on the opposition. And highlights that, in this instance, business can actually learn a few tricks from politics. Adopt your opponent’s issue/solution as your goal but pitch an alternative path for getting there. Tracking Microsoft’s activities in cloud computing and software as a/+ service, I suspect some opposition tactics are also in play but a lot less visible in the news than their traditional methods.

The ability for any and all organisations to cope with opposition is going to become an essential management skill (I wonder if it is on MBA courses). The Internet’s role in social networks combined with mobile phones and instant messaging services have introduce a whole new audience of potential opponents, better organised and more vocal than ever before. Us.

Technorati tags: Microsoft vs Google

When patterns mislead…

In case you missed it, there was a great article in FastCompany this week: Is the Tipping Point Toast? written by Clive Thompson. The article covered research from Duncan Watts, author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (amongst others), that challenges the belief that you can use influencers (the well-connected) to seed a new trend.

To grossly over-simplify, the idea behind the tipping point is that people watch people who watch people who watch the influencers. (Classic Pyramid stuff.) Therefore, if you can get the influencers to adopt a new product, it will go viral and grow exponentially = big success. Duncan challenges this claim and argues instead that the likelihood of success has nothing to do with influencers. They are a side effect that can speed up adoption of a trend that would have gone viral anyway. In other words, spending your marketing money on the elite few is unlikely to be significantly more effective than standard mass marketing.

Central to Duncan’s argument is the habit we have of taking an event and then working backwards to identify what happened and spot a pattern that can be reproduced. Anyone who has read Freakonomics will recognise the flaws in this approach – correlation does not guarantee cause and effect, and indicators are easy to spot once you know what you are looking for.

Simple demonstration. Go find somebody, find a table or similar surface, ask them to ‘name that tune’ and tap out the Happy Birthday song with your hand. It will be a miracle if they spot the tune when it is tapped in monotone with no words. Tell them what the tune is and then both tap out the tune. It is easy to ‘hear’ it when you know what is being played.

On a related theme, I am currently reading a book about unpredictable events – The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan is all about unpredictable events and why we never see them coming but think we should have (and therefore think we can predict the next one and get it wrong all over again).

In the Financial Times on Friday was yet another example – Last year’s model: Stricken US homeowners confound predictions:

¨…it seems that mathematical models used to predict future default rates, based on past patterns of losses, have gone wrong because they did not adjust to reflect shifts in household behaviour.¨

In the past, when US households struggled to repay debts, they tended to default in a certain order. Credit cards and car loans were the first to suffer. Failing to pay your mortgage was the absolute last resort. (Losing your house = big social no-no.) This time around, people are defaulting on their mortgages before personal loans or credit card bills. (The current climate has created negative equity and changed behaviour – why repay a mortgage for a property you don’t have any stake in anyway.)

There are two technology trends that need to beware this Achilles heel with using the past to predict the future. One is performance management (and its sibling: busines intelligence) – the use of data visualisation to analyse your information sources and gather new insights that should improve decision making. The classic turkey scenario – you get fed every day and expect to be fed again tomorrow. Instead, you get your head chopped off.

The other trend is social networking applications, in particular any that plan on using the ‘Social Graph’ as a method to track and use relationships. And that leads onto the final link (this post is really a collection of links from the week…) an article in VentureBeat – Google’s Marissa Meyer: Social search is the future. Coincidentally(?) it has come out at the same time as a video clip of Google’s new Social Graph API.

You can find out more about the Social Graph API at Google Code.

The example that Brad gives in the short video clip makes sense but let’s change the players. Instead of Brad finding his friend Bob on Twitter, imagine a spam company creating a loooooooong blog roll of ‘friends’ on LiveJournal and then setting up an account on Twitter to find out more contact details for all those ‘friends’. The potential problem with the Social Graph concept is that it reduces social networks down to a logical drawing, when relationships are anything but. Our concept of who is, or isn’t, a ‘friend’ has changed with the arrival of massive social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, and our behaviour has changed with it. The concept (and associated behaviour) will likely change again in the future, when organisations learn to exploit those friendships in new and unexpected ways. Will the API adapt?

Filed in: Social Graph (new topic); Data visualisation