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IT Directions

Keith Harrison-Broninski

NY Times describes email as the bane of professional life

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I often address the problem of email overload in this blog. Recently a colleague pointed out to me several high-profile articles focusing on the same problem.

A NY Times blog post in December 2007 asks "Is Information Overload a $650 Billion Drag on the Economy", describing it as follows:

The information-overload toll is largely a byproduct of workers grappling with the growing tide of e-mail, instant messages, cellphone calls, wikis, blogs and the like.

... while technology investors bemoan the lack of decent solutions:

... and an article in the NY Times of April 20 2008 writes:

E-MAIL has become the bane of some people's professional lives.

The NY Times article goes on to describe the new wave of tech startups that attempt to address the problem by tinkering with your inbox (ClearContext, Xobni, BoxBe, RapidReader, et al), and then dismisses them all by pointing out that:

None of these services really eliminates the problem of e-mail overload because none helps us prepare replies.

Indeed. The true problem here is not the email protocol, or current email clients, both of which serve their purpose reasonably well. The problem is what I call network overload, which refers to the increasing volume of human interaction in the workplace. This interaction manifests itself not only as email, but also as phone calls, conference calls, text messages, instant messages, face-to-face meetings, and in many other ways.

To solve the network overload problem, one must first ascertain its cause. In this case, the root cause is not the increased ease of communication via technology such as email. Rather, the root cause is the increased amount of collaboration that most people are expected to participate in.

To deal with this, one first needs a means of sorting the wheat from the chaff - distinguishing messages (of any kind) that are part of an ongoing collaborative activity from messages (of any kind) that are simply informational.

Only then is it possible to fix the real problems of email:

  • Discussions that fizzle out, fragment among different colleagues, or
    lose their purpose

  • Attachments scattered all over your file system

  • No way of ensuring use of a specific version of an attachment, or even
    of knowing what version your colleagues are using

  • Actions that cannot be tracked, or for which you are not sure if anyone
    has even taken responsibility

  • Doing work without knowing what value anyone is getting from it

  • Having to spend too much time assembling audit trails for work carried


The next generation desktop productivity tool cannot possibly be a clever Outlook plug-in that endlessly re-organizes the messages in your inbox, hoping thereby to discover hidden nuggets of gold. This is fiddling while Rome burns! Rather, the next step forward in workplace technology is software based on a robust theory of human interaction: a Human Interaction Management System (HIMS).

A HIMS helps you understand the collaborative work processes (Stories) in which you are engaged, and makes it easier for you to execute your part in these Stories. As the NY Times would say, a HIMS eliminates the problem of e-mail overload by helping you prepare replies.

If you are interested to try out a HIMS, the reference implementation of a HIMS is the free HumanEdj, available now in beta.

Keith Harrison-Broninski cuts through the hype in his hands-on guide to where enterprise IT is really going

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith Harrison-Broninski is a researcher, writer, keynote speaker, software architect and consultant working at the forefront of the IT and business worlds.


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