In recent posts I have been considering what sort of software is required to properly and securely support human collaborative work - and giving examples of situations in which current tools and techniques fall down. Here's one with which we are all familiar, yet which is in fact completely inappropriate in any real sense: the use of email to conduct a "business interaction": a conversation, dialogue, discussion, negotiation or any other set of inter-related work communications.
Email must be far and away the most common of all Internet business tools, more so even than the Web. Not every company offers a transactional Web site, or uses such sites to do its own business. But they all provide their employees with email and expect them to use it. It is surprising, then, that when you actually start to think about it, that email turns out to be incredibly ill-suited to business use.
For a start, email is dreadfully insecure. Some companies provide their employees with secure messaging services, but many more don't. In general, emails are plain text communications that can be read by any intermediary as they travel across the Internet. Further, you don't even know who is reading the email once it gets to its destination - it could be the person you address it to, or it could be their PA, or someone else who they have asked to check their email while they are out of the office. It could also be an IT staff member with privileged access to the email system, or any superuser charged with maintaining it.
Email has in fact many technical security problems with falsified headers, corrupted attachments, and so on. But let's put the insecurity of email aside, since it is such a huge and obvious problem - and look at some of its more subtle and interesting problems - ones that are business-related rather than technical.
First, there is tone. In the early days of the Internet, its users recognized that email brought with it problems of emotional content. Basically, when you write something you do so with an attitude - which may be anything from humorous to gently reprimanding to insistent to deferential. The trouble is, the person reading it doesn't always interpret your message in the same way you meant it. It is very easy to mistake the emotional content of an email, which is why early Internet users developed a concept of "netiquette" - a set of practices that enabled parties to a discussion to make their intent clear in terms both of logical and of emotional content. These days, however, the use of email has spread and netiquette has vanished. I've seen many an email discussion that would have been cordial if carried out in person deterioriate as the people concerned misread the tone of messages from each other. And this can have serious business impact.
Second, there is involvement. The people engaged in an email interaction tend to change as the conversation progresses. Often people are CCed by one respondent but not by another - sometimes deliberately, other times just because a party presses "Reply" instead of "Reply All" by accident. This gives rise to all sorts of thorny problems, not just of politics and wounded feelings, but very practical things such as people expecting someone to know (and act on) something that they were in fact never informed of.
Third, there is sequencing. People tend to work through their inboxes in date order - oldest first. So how many times have you replied to an email, promising certain actions, then realized there was a later email (perhaps not even from the same person) which renders your response inappropriate or even unnecessary? To avoid this problem, I try to consciously force myself not to reply to anyone at all until I've read all my emails, which is a tiring and unnatural way to work. Effectively, you end up reading everything twice, since once you've worked through your inbox once you have to start all over again - and hope that another email doesn't arrive while you're doing so!
Fourth, there is filing. How do you file your emails? Myself, I try to put them in folders, organized logically, but often the subject matter of the folders.overlaps. Do you put a message from a consultancy client about a technical issue under "consultancy" or under "technical"? Do you keep each client's email in a separate folder or organize it by "type" in some way? Not only do such filing strategies rarely work as you would like, but they are also incredibly laborious. It takes ages to set up and maintain the rules that assign messages to folders, and even then you end up doing some by hand as most email systems file incoming but not outgoing email. One solution is just to leave everything in a default inbox and rely on search tools, but then what do you search on? Every email has different keywords. We're into the rarefied domain of what is called "latent semantic analysis" - and all we need is to store our interactions with people in a sensible way!
Fifth, there is the biggest problem of all.
Email is so easy to use that it's easy to overlook how for many people it is more of a problem than a convenience. In a corporate environment, it is not unusual to receive hundreds of emails per day, which both reduces productivity and increases stress. As they say, for some people email gets in the way of their work - and for the rest, email is their work.
Why do we all get so many emails, more than we can reasonably be expected to deal with? Because we never get the chance to specify exactly the messages we are willing to receive.
For example, many people routinely "CC the whole world" as a means of dealing with an issue that crops up - partly since it is easier than working out who exactly needs to know about the issue, and partly to cover their own backs. And the impact of this very common practice is enormous. Faced with an inbox full of such blanket postings, you are nevertheless forced to read each one carefully, since you can never be sure that the one message you skim, or skip entirely, is the one that raises a business problem for which you will later be held responsible. Far from increasing co-operation amongst colleagues, unrestrained messaging not only reduces productivity but also fosters a culture in which people are encouraged to offload issues onto others - rather than a culture in which people are motivated to personally ensure solutions
Similarly, when someone has a question that needs answering, the general assumption in a modern workplace is that one can just fire off an email to get the information required. No matter that the recipient(s) may already be drowning in work, or may not be the best people to ask anyway - simply by receiving an email, they each take on the responsibility to respond, even if it is only with a suggestion that someone else would be better placed to help out.
The underlying problem with email is that people are rarely clear about who they are working with, and on what, or who is the best person to approach in a given situation. There is no clear visibility of shared and individual goals and responsibilities, so people deal with things in a variety of unpredictable ways. For instance, they may spread the net as wide as possible, and include anyone that could possibly have a tangential interest - with the result that everyone's workload increases, general efficiency drops, and stress levels rise.
The only way forward is to provide a simple means for people to declare what exactly they are interested in, and what exactly they are responsible for - i.e., software tools that facilitate a more intelligent form of human collaboration. Email does not provide this, and is never going to provide this. It is a low-level protocol that should underpin more business-oriented tools for human collaboration.
And once we get such tools, perhaps we'll be able to get more work done, with less stress - and still get home in time to see the kids.