Why we are still struggling with email overload? Mistrust


Hat tip to Jack Vinson for highlighting this article from Nathan Zeldes about the irrationality of email usage (PDF).

I'm a long time fan of Zeldes, who many years ago created a ground breaking program at Intel to teach better email skills, called YourTime.

What is different about Zeldes' approach is that he doesn't point the finger of blame solely at how the user manages their inbox (this isn't about "inbox zero"). Rather its about how people in organisations use email as a collective.

Jack's summary is:

The resolution to this is that instead of trying to treat the symptoms of too much email, the underlying thinking needs to be rewired too. And Nathan's basic underlying cause: mistrust. Start creating an environment of trust, rather than fear. Stop making it okay for people to send CYA emails. Make them accountable for results, not intentions or attempts. (Do people know what they are expected to do, and by when?)

Zeldes approach was very influential in my thinking about email overload, which I outlined back in 2008 in this short paper (PDF) - my three steps for managing email better are:

  1. Where possible, eliminate the root cause of the problem;
  1. Take control of your own inbox by managing it appropriately; and
  1. Lead by example and practice better e-mail etiquette and style.

Focusing on the root cause, organisation contribute to the problem by:

communication technologies already available to them.

Hopefully you can see how this thinking feeds directly into my outlook (sic) about collaboration and information management in organisations today, particularly my emphasis on social software.

Many people are adamant about their email inbox being the centre of their working world, but perhaps its worth considering the damage it is doing by reinforcing bad working practices and business culture in your organisation.