Tuesday, 26 February 2008

e-mail sucks

I can remember when I first got e-mail. It was long before any of my readers (I dare say) got e-mail, somewhere around 1971. E-mail (it wasn’t called that then) had a profound effect on my staff. Instead of walking in and chatting when they had an issue, they sent e-mail. But, in 1971 sending e-mail wasn’t quite as simple as it is today. It took a lot of time and only worked every now and then. They would sit for hours trying to make an e-mail go through instead of simply knocking on my door.

In the early days, you only got e-mail from people you knew.
Life was simple. Only computer scientists and military people had access to the ARPANET, which conveyed e-mail, so it was a small world. Computer scientists arranged lunch and sent each other papers. Life was simple. E-mail was grand.

Then suddenly, things started to change. First it was people who had access to all the e-mail addresses that existed at the time who felt the obligation to tell everyone what they thought about everything. Then it was people looking for a place to live or a bicycle to sell that just had to let everyone know about it.

Now everyone has e-mail. Spammers, your employees, your neighbors, business folks you want to talk to, and many people who you don’t want to talk to. For people who work in large enterprises, e-mail is out of hand. There are some important messages. It is just hard to find them when you get a few hundred a day. And then it is hard to find the ones you saved, on another day when you need to find them again. There are just so many of them. Storing them by sender doesn’t work when the same sender sends you zillions and subject headers are usually useless.

What to do?

Stop using e-mail.

Please, give me a few more paragraphs, before you stop reading because you think you are dealing with the ravings of a madman.

Amazingly enough, businesses ran quite effectively before there was e-mail. They also ran before there were computers. Nowadays both thoughts seem impossible. A lot of business simply has to be run by computer. Purchasing for example. Business sell that way, they buy that way, and nothing will stop this electronic replacement for the old method. On the other hand, business deals, and agreements although they may be mediated by e-mails and documents produced on a computer, are still pretty much face to face (or telephone) affairs. Why is this? E-bay exists after all. Why can’t business deals be handled by e-bay?

The reason is simple enough to understand. We need to trust the people we are dealing with and this means we need to know them. E-bay won’t do except for simple purchases.

Actually computers don’t work that well for anything that is very important. Really important folks in a business have secretaries to screen their calls and to handle their appointments. A good secretary knows whom her boss wants to see or talk to and whom he doesn’t. And the secretary knows the priorities of who ranks over whom in significance for her boss.

So, why can’t a computer do the secretary’s job? Why do secretaries still exist? E-mail makes it seem as if they should no longer exist. Far less people have them these days in part because there is e-mail and everyone has a computer. Nevertheless, we all would rather have a good secretary. Why is that?

A key element of a good secretary’s job is coordination. A secretary who simply arranges appointments for her boss without understanding the priorities of requests; or which meetings should have multiple attendees and who they should be; or how to limit wasting time with travel that is unimportant or badly arranged; or which are the urgent issues in the business are at a given time; cannot be very effective.

And, e-mail understands none of this.

So, you get hundreds of messages because your e-mail isn’t as bright as even the dullest secretary.

What is needed is a replacement for e-mail. And, it must be as good as a good secretary.

The good news is this can be done.

Of course the question is how it can be done. The obvious answer is wrong.

The obvious answer, one that AI people have talked about for decades, is building a computer that simulates and therefore is as smart as, your secretary. This will not happen any time soon. Your secretary knows a lot of stuff. She probably knows what you like to eat and how things are with your wife and kids, and who in the company really doesn’t like you and what people are saying behind your back. So forget that. There is no reason to, nor any real hope for, simulating all the human, everyday, knowledge that a secretary has.

Fortunately, we do not have to simulate a secretary to fix the e-mail problem in large enterprises.

Why not?

Because, in a large enterprise people do not typically act as free agents. Real people, when they are not playing a role, simply do what they want to do. So, they could be writing an e-mail to their friends about anything, about their mood, or about what they plan to do on Saturday night, or about a random thought they just had. Not so in a large enterprise. In business, people are careful to do what their job specifies that they should be doing. They might send a personal message as well, but that is not my point. A lot of what they are writing about is what they should be writing about, what they are obligated by the nature of their job to be writing about. Furthermore they are writing to precisely those people who need to know about the issues the writer is communicating, often because there is some action the recipients will need to take as a result of having read the e-mail. Or at least that is what should be going on. Seen that way, e-mail is not a free form exercise but part of a very routine set of processes that fit together in very specific way within the enterprise.

This is good news.

It is good news because some e-mails are more important than others. A computer can gauge an e-mail’s importance correctly if that computer has a model of what is important in an enterprise. Your e-mail program does not know that an e-mail about bad weather or crewing problems is urgent for someone in the shipping business. Nor does it know who is tracking what and who needs to know what. E-mail relies on the idea that the sender knows all that and that urgency can be marked by simply saying something is urgent. But if everything is marked urgent or if people who need to know are left out of a mailing, there is a problem. Further if an e-mail should have caused its recipient to put an action on his to do list but it didn’t because he spilled his coffee while reading it, something may not get done later on down the line. None of this has to happen if the message system that an enterprise employs is based on a detailed process model of how information flows, to whom and why, and what goals that information is meant to relate to in the enterprise. In other words, a complete model of the enterprise must be the basis of all message traffic. That model is what we rely upon the secretary to have. Of course, the secretary may not actually have that model or may have a defective or out of date model.

Business communication in a complex enterprise needs a detailed model of who does what in the enterprise and each person’s particular role in every critical situation. This is not only possible -- it is mission critical.

How can this be done?

By understanding and detailing everyone’s role and the tasks associated with that role, all tied to the goals that those tasks are meant to satisfy. Add in a goal calculus that makes clear what goals supercede what other goals in given circumstances and you have a model of the enterprise. Then, an e-mail sent by a person is not sent by that person but by that role and the subject is not whatever the sender said the subject was, the subject is how what the sender is about to communicate will affect a given process in the enterprise in the context of the satisfaction of a given goal.

Do you know what everyone in your company is doing and why they are doing it? Then stop allowing them to write whatever they want to whomever they want and start making sure that e-mails are part of the design of how things work, and how coordination happens. Don’t let e-mail do what it was never meant to do, namely make your enterprise function well. E-mail was simply not invented for that purpose.


Vasileios Vamvakidis said...


Deal with reality said...

Since you date yourself back into the 1970's, you might remember the vast secretarial pools that were present in corporate America back then.

In today's business environment, where "headcount" is a dirty word, we honestly can't function without computers, or e-mail.

It think your posting is decidedly naive, and doesn't take a look at the full picture.