A Modest Proposal For Email

"Email is Where Knowledge Goes to Die"

I first saw this phrase on someone’s email signature, but sadly I can’t find the original email so I don't know who said it.  I Googled the phrase and found this guy.  His origin story is pretty good, so I’ll go with it.  At the end of his post he sums up the problem nicely:

"… email is a knowledge cul-de-sac – a dead end for valuable ideas – a graveyard of potential. Email is where corporate IQ kicks back and has a brewski. Email also contributes to corporate amnesia; forgetfulness that costs businesses millions – perhaps billions in repeated mistakes every year.

"Email is also wasteful; threads grow with unending off-topic discussions and CC lists expand, eroding productivity in all corners of the enterprise. Indeed, email is a problem but imagine trying to do business without it. Even with the massive heat-loss from this antiquated and weak communications model, two things are clear; (i) no one has come up with a better approach that has challenged or displaced email, and (ii) it works pretty well in spite of its shortcomings."

A fundamental problem with email is that it has made communication so cheap and easy, that we use it habitually for all types of communications that are not really appropriate to the medium.

For example, if I need you to review the attached document by the end of business tomorrow, then an email is an appropriate method of communicating that information to you.  If however, I need you to review the attached document immediately, then I should probably track you down and make sure you got the message.  Emails get lost and get caught by spam filters.  Recipients aren’t always at their desk or looking at their computer screen.  A phone call and a shared computer screen, or visit to your office with the document in hand would be more appropriate.

Similarly, if I have made lunch reservations and I want to notify you of the time and place, then an email is perfect. I don’t expect an immediate response, it’s not mission critical information. If you don’t receive it, then you’ll probably contact me to find out when and where we’re having lunch. If, however, I send you a message saying, “Where should we go to eat?” and you respond, “I don’t know.  Where do you want to go?”, then that conversation would be better had in another forum. Real-time conversations work better on the phone, in a desktop video conference, or in an instant messaging application.

Office newsletters or reminders of the upcoming Holiday Party work well in email.  Email is very good at handling “one to many” communications as long as a response is not necessary. But email breaks down when used for “many to many” communications such as a message sent to a large group of people asking, “Does anyone know how to...?”  Invariably, someone will reply and CC: another party saying, “No. But I think so-and-so does.”  At that point there are at least two different threads passing each other on the server and not every participant has access to all information. Even if you eventually find the answer, there will be a lot of emails in a lot of inboxes. How will you find the correct answer again in six months? Will those emails still be there? And how will the next person to come across that same question benefit from your previous inquiry?  They will probably need to go through the whole exercise again. “Many to many” communications belong in social networks, or on bulletin boards, or group workspaces where that kind of information can be more easily shared with a large group and stored for future reference.  

So, how can you get people to use other methods of communication when email is not the most appropriate?  

Delay delivery of all outgoing emails by 5 minutes.  

A five minute delay is long enough to be a nuisance when email is inappropriate, but not so long as to make a difference when email is the best choice.  

Looking again at our examples above, a request to review a document by the end of tomorrow would weather a 5 minute delay easily.  As would a notification for a lunchtime meeting in a couple of hours. If the invitee couldn't make that time, then he would be be likely to pick up the phone or send an instant message, rather than try to communicate in real time with the email delay. Finally, the office newsletters and notifications would not be affected by the delay, but a group of people trying to solve a problem would quickly move that conversation to another medium like a social network or a conference call.

I believe this simple change would drastically cut down on the volume of emails, which would in turn make the emails that do end up in the inbox more visible. More importantly, this five minute delay would also make employees more conscious of their use of email.  Before habitually firing off an email, a sender would think to themselves, can the recipient survive without this information for the next 5 minutes? Can I wait 10 minutes for a reply?  If either answer is no, then email is probably not the most appropriate way to send the message.

Of course, a simple email delay alone will not solve the "Knowledge Death" problem. Alternative communication tools, like I've described above, would have to be made available. Information shared using all communication tools would still have to be captured, stored, and made accessible for future use and reuse. This is a huge undertaking, but getting people to use the right tool for the job is the first step to getting a handle on the problem.

Now, how to convince the powers that be to “break” email in the name of productivity?

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Steven B. Levy, author of Legal Project Management said...

This is a great idea. I've set this for specific emails using rules in Outlook, and it can be helpful.

My new book contains a number of ideas on how to more efficiently use email. It's called The Off Switch: Discovering Your Work-Work Balance, available from Amazon etc. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1463666624/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=daypacom-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1463666624).

I've tested these ideas in practice, and they work in the legal world. They don't require you to change the way you organize mail, for example, just the way you attack your mail as a task. They'll save you 30 minutes a day if you go with them whole hog, but even trying just a few of them will, I believe, make a read productivity difference.

Bill said...


Thanks for linking to my story about "Email is where knowledge goes to die."

Lots of people have used my quote for all sorts of things including their own email signatures and I openly endorse anyone's use of this phrase to help organizations realize its shortcomings and bring greater awareness to the problems of email as a business tool.

I enjoyed your comments and I might suggest you take a look at nimble.com - it might be useful to some organizations looking for an escape route from email as we know it.

Ryan McClead said...

I'm glad you like the idea. I wouldn't bet on any law firms implementing it though. :-)

I have loved the phrase since I first heard it. It's an honor to hear from the man who coined it. I'll check out nimble.com. Thanks for the tip,

Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney said...

This post certainly gave me something to think about. Emails usually work for me, but in case of urgency, I often turn to instant messaging. We all need to give email a second thought when it comes to using it as a tool in dealing with our business.

Charlie Davidson said...

For those interested in email policy, productivity and the issues of information overload the Information Overload Research Group will be holding an informal conference in San Francisco in late February. It is called Overloaded and it is intended as a gathering of likeminded people to discuss and create pathways for solutions to these challenges. We would like to invite those interested in this topic to attend and participate. You can find a description and links to the conference here http://iorgforum.org/2012/01/14/join-us-at-overloaded-2012-feb-25-in-san-francisco/


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