Email is Killing Your Business


Email has become the elephant in the room. For just about every single business and education institution, the utter dependence on email as a primary communications and knowledge sharing channel is putting a quiet stranglehold on every aspect of operation.

Email as a problem space goes so deep and so wide, it’s difficult for most people to articulate. Even though much of their job is centered around the operation of email, and passing information from one entity to another through it, people have a hard time getting past the “necessary evil,” descriptor.

Yet entire organizations, almost as a function of cognitive dissonance, continue shoveling coal (read: dollars and workplace efficiency), into this steam engine that is fundamentally broken.

This dawned on me recently as a large agency (who’s name will be withheld to protect the innocent), announced it was switching from Outlook to LotusNotes. Say there’s 1000 employees there using Outlook (there are many more, but just to have a nice number).

Is it too far fetched to say that simply by making this switch and having to adjust to a new email interface, and new email-capable phones, each employee loses 1 hour of work time in the year? What about 4 hours? Ten hours? At a blended rate of $150 per hour and net revenue of $60, the agency decision just lost $1,500,000 in billables and $600,000 of net revenue. For each employee to spend two extra minutes a day fidgeting with a device or interface. That’s completely outside any of the actual client work.

So what can we do to make email work in today’s workplace?

Equip employees with a second monitor

This is the thing you can do right now to jump how efficient people are in the workplace. Lifehacker had an article from years ago imploring office workers to upgrade from 17″ to 19″ monitors, citing research that showed an 11% increase in productivity just by adding those two inches.

Today I see it all the time. Much of people’s jobs, especially account leads and managers, is about correctly, efficiently relaying and presenting information in email. Or comparing documents. Or comparing emails and documents to Websites. Casually watching them work on a single screen is more frustrating than any user test.

With every new email or comparison, the constant switching of screens is a cacophony of inefficiency. With every application that needs to be brought to the front, the employees concentration is broken. Then the inevitable, “Wait, what was I looking for?” comes in, and a task that should take 15 seconds is now stretching into 2-3 minutes.

When you have two monitors, these tasks across applications flow with relative ease. Personally, I like to put all communications windows in one monitor and have the other dedicated to workspace. In this scenario, where you have one screen dedicated to email, IM, Twitter, Yammer, etc., new information takes only a glance instead of a small application-flipping process.

Again, this is a quick, get-IT-to-install-it-today kinda fix. The total cost to the organization is less than $1000, and you’re buying into at least 200 new billable hours and better quality for everyone that gets upgraded.

Make a new email interface for your business

Seriously. You’d never think to just roll out a default WordPress installation, or a default CRM, yet everyone in the organization is working from the default design of Outlook, a program little changed from a decade ago. How can this work well for you? It can’t. So everyone tries a workaround. From Yammer to Basecamp to Wikis, people are tacking on anything they can get funding for and alleviate their email barrage.

We need to accept that email isn’t dead; that it will evolve into something else over the next decade as boomers retire. With this acceptance, we need to start looking at how much email people get, how they use it, and the best ways to present it: on the devices the people in the organization use, and for the amount and varying levels of importance email carries. We keep the technical structure, but reformat the interface to better suit our users.

One particular interface design I’ve thought applies well to email use today is TweetDeck. While it’s built to deliver filtered information from Twitter to the desktop, think for a moment about how well it would handle email challenges.

Most emails require nothing more than a cursory glance at the first few lines to update some small bit of information: like a scheduling change, project progress, even a “thanks.” And most replies are friendly ways of saying, “I see this.”

At the same time, most heavy email users employ filters to automatically put emails into folders. But that’s not “flat,” in the sense that you can see what’s in that folder without losing the information you’re currently looking at.

Here’s a quick sketch on what such an email client, built in a platform like AIR, would look like:

Having shown this interface model to a few project lead friends, the early, highly qualitative and unanimous response is “Wow, this would be awesome.” In essence, it treats emails the way people process them: allowing them to scan first, and read selected items in more depth second.

BYO communications app ecosystem

I’ve grown into a big fan of building application ecosystems on top of Apple’s distribution infrastructure. But the bottom line is that the way your organizations runs projects has a core of repeated activities that today we spend a lot of time working around. Getting clients to review content like copy, images, and movies. Milestone and deadline awareness on different project aspects.

Let’s bring these tasks and objects into the enterprise environment: so that companies can gain not only efficiency, but control over the brand, interaction design, and ultimately the complete presentation of the deliverables that make such a valuable part of the relationship.

And this doesn’t even account for workflow that needs to extend all the way out to an external audience. These days, companies are starting to grasp that brands need to leverage social networking to atomize the brand into smaller more personal relationships with the audience.

Building a communications system that accounts for this channel, whether it’s talking directly to an audience, or flagging assets for a community manager to promote is just one of the key differentiators both agencies and brands need to embrace fully before they get left behind over the next decade.

Ultimately Social Media should be teaching companies how to be scalable and nimble enough to transact communications on any platform quickly: wherever and however the internal and external audiences want.

We’re right on the cusp of communications infrastructure being a selling point for employers and agency selection. The question is: who will be the first to tap into this next computing goldmine?

And Kudos to you for hanging with me through all 1100-some words! If you’re still with me, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below, or on Twitter @mleis.


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  • Tomáš Marek

    That's where Mozilla's Raindrop fits in.

  • Alexander Deliyannis

    The filtered approach that you propose is indeed very important and useful, but in my view it doesn't solve a major issue of email which is the lack of context: with email often used as if it were instant messaging, continuity of conversations is lost in endless back-and-forths. Threading of messages is thus crucial in order to get a perspective.

    In this sense I think that Google got it right with Wave which I most definitely suggest that you try if you haven't yet.

  • mleis

    Absolutely agree with you Alexander, and thanks for taking the time to write it.

    Threading conversations is very important, and to me is a subset of filtering, which would act as the larger context of that project, or area of interest. On the other hand, I wasn't willing to open up that interaction design rabbit hole, because I feel like threading may be more reliant on the individual corporate culture than we give it credit for.

    Take for instance a company that is successfully using Yammer or IM in concert with email — this comes back to your Wave example — how do you integrate those conversations into the threads, or do you let them continue to live in their own world for a few versions.

    But anyway, that's why I left it out of this article, because I think that after so many years of email clients trying with limited success to accurately thread conversations, the big advance is in visual filtering first, then identifying the best approach to threading.

  • mleis

    Thanks very much for highlighting this cool mozilla project — but I think this is actually part of the problem right now. A lot of developers are going after this full-streaming concept, and while very valuable to continue pushing our understanding of how to bring all these streams and data points under one roof, it's really focusing on a small number of digitally savvy people, and jocking for position in a millenial market who will want *something* like this, but probably on mobile.

    What I'm concerned about is the gap between the boomer and millenial behaviors, and how we begin to move technology forward one step at a time based on where people are at instead of just where we want them to be.

    Make sense?

  • kay

    I like your POV and info but I wish you would spellcheck before you publish.

  • mleis

    Thanks, Kay. As an explanation, I'll defer to ee cummings:

    since feeling is first
    who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things
    will never wholly kiss you;

    wholly to be a fool
    while Spring is in the world

    my blood approves,
    and kisses are a better fate
    than wisdom
    lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
    –the best gesture of my brain is less than
    your eyelids’ flutter which says

    we are for each other: then
    laugh, leaning back in my arms
    for life’s not a paragraph

    And death i think is no parenthesis

  • rotkapchen

    While Wave has UI issues of its own, there are larger issues here besides just the threads: persistence and duplication of files. Email servers are burdened with duplicate copies of the same emails and attachments.

    Google Wave isn't the answer because it's not really designed as a corporate system of record. Select Enterprise 2.0 systems are (mind you, most of them are not). This is an architectural design issue before it's a UI design issue.

  • mleis

    Thanks so much for chiming in Paula, you were one of the people I thought about as I was writing this up.

    So yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you that in many ways, the problem is so much bigger than threading or UI changes. The email server thing is not a huge concern to me, because storage, processing, and bandwidth only get cheaper every day, the reason why duplicates and persistence are such an issue is because corporate IT hasn't evolved its investment model in many cases to account for this.

    But what led me to write this is the uninformed feeling that email is becoming a proxy for a societal stalemate between generational computing techniques. The people who would be required to sign off on such a large investment to dig into the foundational architecture and really build a better system from the ground up often need to “see” something tangible as proof that work is happening.

    In this sense, I like the idea of the first change being one of presentation. That by leaving every other aspect to function and get funded as-is, you can tangibly demonstrate fairly quickly how important evolving internal communication structure like email is. It immediately helps everyone in the organization in a way that makes them feel as though change can be good.

    So you get that win under your belt and can begin installing an iterative process of constant, small change to the communications infrastructure, where now you can pair deep change with small interface improvements and act in the real long-term interest of the org.

    I'm not saying it's the best way, but I feel like it might be a good way to facilitate progress.

  • yuyudin

    I am a big fan of filtering, but the systems need to be improved and have some sort of “intelligence” so that they know when to handle exceptions better. Another problem is an average person has 2-3 email addresses. Sometimes the personal and work emails do inter-relate — especially those of us who are consulting, or run their own businesses. Those in the top level need to be the most productive as they can be. Optimizing email makes all the difference.

  • Chris Avore

    To a lot of folks, particularly those that either sell tools or services in the enterprise 2.0 space, email is the whipping boy of communication tools, for a number of the reasons you point out here, Michael.

    Whether it's the lack of context (reading a terse “yes, do it” in a string of email 30 threads deep), to a lack of discoverability, or including the wrong people on an email or leaving the right people off, it's a fundamental behavior we have to tweak, no?

    It's those social tools you bring up that, if adopted, can actually make a dent in the enterprise's reliance on email, if not the sheer number of emails sent (because obviously there's a difference though some people treat volume and value as identical).

    Have you found a lot of your clients are even aware there's what's supposed to be a better way out there? Or is email so ingrained culturally and in practice that they don't even know life could be easier?

    I'm finding people have no problems kicking email in the teeth but then go right back to updating their status reports in email, sending a document for peer review through email, or discussing a project plan through email.

    I'm in the process of trying to address the behaviors to the tools and it's not easy. Would love to trade war stories next time.

    Thanks for getting your thoughts out here for us to chime in–

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  • mleis

    Hey YuYu – You are completely right in terms of where I think most of us who have thought about this problem net out. But how do we get to that point? We need to create a new private environment where we can collect data about all the email habits, and see exactly what those exceptions are. We need to gain some real insight into the algorithms naturally created by behavior – no?

    And thanks as always for commenting, your perspective always welcome here :)

  • mleis

    Chris thanks so much for the comment, you're hitting the nail right on the head. People are really quick to identify email as being crapulent, but I wrote the article because just as you said, it's so ingrained, it does seem to have become culturally cognitively dissonant.

    Everyone knows it's broken, but people make some sort of crazy justification to themselves to keep using it. I think in some cases it's cool phones, like the company pays for a blackberry. Or it justifies them having more flexibility in working from home. But the reality is, they could still have these soft cultural rewards using a communications infrastructure that actually works.

    Not to cite the NYT too much, but an email etiquette article way back started stratifying email habits according to corporate class. Executives are most likely to write short emails to one or two people. Middle-managers are more likely to write very long emails and engage in flame wars, and typically CC a lot of people on an email. This is where I started thinking about email as having become part of the cognitive dissonance of the american dream: as though executives had realized the dream and therefore do not have to deal with much email, but the way to get there is to engage in email as much as possible?

    Many war stories next time, I'm sure!

    Thanks again

  • yuyudin

    Chris there's a lot of cultural reasons why people go back to email, too. In India for example, folks would rather talk to you on the phone than voice their opinions on email. Email means it's something official, on the record, permanent, you can't retract like a phone conversation. It's also a tool that is used as a “delay tactic” to buy more time. The higher up a person is the more prompt their email replies are. (I think it has something to do with empowerment too, but that's another discussion.) I've had emails that were never answered or issues being revisited after 6 months. Then again, we're talking about the Indian corporate structure here. It's the same with chat/conference etiquette — once you log in, no one would say “hi” because they don't know what to do. They don't teach these things at the MBA schools. Very few progressive firms use blackberries. People have iPhones as accessories, but when it comes to being actually productive, being “in the know” and getting emails on their device folks tend to have missed the train. And yes, they tend to be middle managers who don't necessarily have a stake in the company.

  • yuyudin

    Yes exactly my point. It's like having your own personal digital email assistant. They make the decisions, filter things out, and pass on the most important ones. There's too many emails to go through in a day, and frankly if it was something from my dad, client, or boss I'd like to read that as soon as it's in my Inbox. If it's just advertising for some webinar, I'd like to rate it so the more recognized folks get my attention and the rest that I'm just “trying out”, I'll view when I have some time. It needs some sort of an AI built in, something that can learn from human behavior or intelligence to make decisions on our behalf. I think we're slowly getting there. ISPs have been pretty good with spam. Only problem with all this is of course privacy. What happens to the program that has all your behavioral information? What happens if it leaks out (like AOL) and everyone else learns of your priorities?

    There's a lot of discussions coming out of this Michael, great post. ^_^

  • mleis

    Thank you for contributing so much to the conversation!

    The only tangent I'll bring up to your points is that I chose the enterprise because that's an environment where you have a lot of control. Aside from already owning all the email data, you also know exactly what hardware and software is on all the computers, and can in large corporate environment can pull small pilot teams for testing within their “natural” computing environment.

    Yes, in b2c you have a mountain of privacy concerns, but in the enterprise, you can test models out and take the small steps to at least wrap minds around the AI you're talking about.

  • mleis

    You're bringing up some interesting points here that I don't really have a frame of reference for. It seems in US culture, at least to me, that executives are not always the most prompt, but they are the most choosy about the emails they reply to, whom they adress, and how short the message content is.

    Agreed about not teaching these kinds of things in school, but not sure if that helps or hurts how the culture and email have intertwined into their own lock-step.

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