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The death of eMail (Part II)

December 2, 2007

A cramped four hour flight from Sao Paulo to Santiago, realising that the camera battery was flat as we crossed the Andes on a clear day is not conduce to thought. Add to that five hours of frustration in failing to find a comfortable spot to wait for checkin to open for the flight to Auckland in an airport terminal without air conditioning and no power sockets ,and I have a perfect excuse for migrane. However after checkin I discovered a Starbucks (with a city mug) and then the Lan Chile lounge turned out to have free internet, excellent sushi and delightful Sauvignon Blanc. I am on my third glass and as a result my mood is thus restored to the point where I feel able to complete part II of yesterday’s blog responding to the ranting and ruminations of Messrs. Moore and Lamb on the subject of email.

Now when I worked for IBM eMail was a plague, not so much for Spam, which is fairly easy to deal with, but for the copies, the blind copies and the political game playing. Since I have left, life has become a lot easier although I still have to deal with around 100 emails a day. I define deal by the way as involving a reply of some sort. So let’s start off with five examples of bad practice, all drawn from my own experience before we proceed to the more positive aspects.

  • Arse-covering, to wit the practice of sending an email to someone so that at some stage in the future you can claim to warned them of an impending disaster. This is a practice as old and hills and has developed from a earlier practice of the protective memo so beloved of bureaucrats around the world. It is an all too put into operation. You send a colleague, or senior decision maker a very long email, imbedded in which is a warning that if the current course of action is continued there is a possibility that doom disaster and the collapse of western civilisation will follow. Now there is a very good chance that no one will even spot your warning if they get enough emails that day (you can help that with 10-12 inconsequential ones of your own). If they do then they have so many similar warnings that if they took heed of any of them things would grind to a halt. You are now in the perfect position. If everything is OK your email will be forgotten, on the other hand if something goes wrong you pull it out, pass it to the press and claim hero status.
  • The assumptive close which involves an email (ideally of great length on a busy day towards month end) which says something along the lines of I will proceed along the above lines unless I hear back from you tomorrow. There is a very good chance that the person who receives your email may not even read it by tomorrow, especially if you send them lots of emails earlier in the day and get your friends to do the same. Even if they do read it, if you have dissembled well they may not notice that a series of double negatives on your part has trapped them into agreement. A very good counter to this by the way is to put the out of office function into continuous use with the following message This is to acknowledge that I have received your eMail. I may or may not have read it, and I may not read it in the future. You are not authorised to make an assumption about my agreement or disagreement in whole or in part to any aspect of your eMail unless I write to you explicitly stating my views. I had a friend in pre-IBM days who put that in place and it saved him no end of problems.
  • The forgery is necessary when you failed to issue an instruction, or forgot the need for arse covering. Something nasty has now appeared in the woodshed (and no I don’t know if the goat died – you will either get this or you won’t, in the latter case you need to read more) and there is a possibility that you may get the blame. What you now do is to take an old email from your history folder, edit it to say what you should have said in the first place an then forward the result to lots of people with a cover note to the effect that I sent this email to Fred three weeks ago and he ignored me. Fred will insist he never received it (and of course he did not) but no one will believe him. I had this done to me in the final days of my life in IBM. An email was forged to say that I did not have permission to travel to Australia when I was already there. Fortunately I had some friends who were able to access the servers and prove that I was telling the truth otherwise I might have been fired rather than leaving with a settlement. Interestingly the perpetrator was not punished, but that is the nature of power.
  • The blind copy gambit can put someone in a really difficult position. They know that you have sent them a copy while the original recipient does not know you have access. You may at first feel that to be so involved is a trust gesture, but it isn’t. You are now in an impossible position of knowing, but not being allowed to know. Whatever you do will offend someone. There is also the danger that you will reply all before you realise that it is blind copy and then the fat will really be in the fire. Actually I have developed a tendency to do this even when I notice the bcc field, largely because I disapprove of the feature although to my shame I have used it.
  • The little miss megabyte strategy is often used by people who spend their entire time in an office on a high speed connection. As a result they are very free with multiple copies and attaching copies of powerpoint slides with so many images that they occupy several hundreds of megabytes. These people always seem to send these when you are in a hotel with wireless access which is expensive and also has a 50Meg cap before punitive charges flick in. You also have to wait for Miss Megabyte’s missives to down before anything else arrives, and of course you have no idea how long this will take. Worst still such dreadnoughts can be sent to you when you have five minutes connect time before the flight/train leaves. Now I have known both good and bad people occupy this role. The good people produce material you want to have, but not as an attachment. A hot link to a database will do just fine thank you.

Now I could think of more but that will do for now. Having been negative you may well ask why I don’t join Matt’s crusade. The reason is simple. I can process email on planes, in front of the television at home without being connected to the internet. If I was to use Facebook or the phone I would not be able to do so. I can also use smart folders to sort email so I can deal with it when I want to deal with it. Given that I travel a lot I also do not want a phone call or a text message – both will cost me a fortune while the incremental cost of an email is nothing.

Yes I use Facebook, and it has cut down on the number of emails I send. So has the blog and my RSS feed along with other tools. However for one-to-one communication that I can handle in a manageable way email is still the best. However if we are going to continue to use it then I think there are some simple rules that can be put in place. These can either be enforced by IT or by social pressure. The latter is effective as it allows you to reject any email which breaks the rules by simply deleting it. My rules would be as follows:

  1. Email is for one to one, or possibly one to two or three communication not for broadcast, for that use the news item of your portal, or possibly your blog which is designed for one to many communication.
  2. Ban all attachments, there is no excuse for them all material should be stored in central location (with record level security if necessary) and accessed via a hot link. This simple change will reduce network traffic, improve version control on documents and is the only way of securing confidential data.
  3. Remove the blind copy feature, it is immoral
  4. Make sure everyone in the organisation has some form of instant messaging, an RSS feed and Facebook (or an equivalent). Teach them how to use them.
  5. If you can, encrypt emails so they cannot be forwarded especially after an office party or during a breakup of a relationship
  6. Provide people with software that allows text messages to be converted to emails for when they are overseas. This is necessary pending the day when roaming charges which have no justification other than excessive profit are removed.

Again I am sure there are more but that is enough to be going on with. The other big change we need is in the legal system. At the moment emails increasingly have long disclaimers saying that if you receive an email in error you should send it back. It would be simple to take those warnings and put them into the civil code, in effect making it an offense to abuse privacy. That would also cover people forwarding private emails. At the same time the legal liability of organisations for email, retention and content needs to be reviewed. Our environment is increasingly open and transparent, employees mix work and leisure. Feeding the paranoia of IT departments is not a good thing.

My final comment here is to return to Patrick’s comment to the effect that ephemeral communications should be ephemeral. I think that is a great statement. With it goes an implicit recognition that we live in a world with many ways of communicating. Email is becoming less dominant, but it is still useful. The fact that teenagers use it less is not relevant, anymore than the same teenagers moving away from blogging trivia can be used to say that blogs are past their utility. Will someone please remember that the nature of teenage (as result of the extended postnatal plasticity of the human brain if you want to know) does not mean that we should take their behavior as indicative of what is needed by those past the age of 25. Teenagers are always different, but they still grow up to be Bankers, Bureaucrats and Entrepreneurs amongst other things at which point the patterns of their behavior, their infomration needs and they social interactions will change.

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