Why we need to put email out of our misery, and how we can do it

Late last year I was struck by the stark contrast between two emails I received. The first was from a colleague in Australia:

Over 800 emails after two weeks leave

The second was sent by a colleague here in China:

Emails not checked for a long time

The colleague in Australia needs to devote considerable time each week to reading and responding to emails, to the point where two weeks absence resulted in an email overload. The colleague in China, however, receives email so rarely that there’s no point checking for them on a regular basis.

This is because email has never taken hold in China, and instead electronic communication occurs mostly through the real-time messaging applications WeChat and QQ. As I’ve previously discussed, the use of messaging applications is rising rapidly globally, and has already overtaken social media in terms of registered users.

Email, or electronic mail, came into being as the internet equivalent of postal mail. Email is much faster and easier than postal mail, so it revolutionised interpersonal communication. However, the lack of direct interaction between the sender and receiver of an email means that people can very easily bury others in endless information, so they do.

On the other hand, because messaging operates in real time, I’ve found that the sender must always be conscious of the time constraints of the receiver. If the receiver is unable to deal with an incoming message at any given time then they can instantly advise the sender of this, which is impossible to do with email.

In Australia and other countries where workplace email overload is experienced, it is seen as an issue that people should just manage as best as they can. However, a current experience is showing me the dark side of email overload, prompting me to conclude that Australia and other email-dependent countries should replace email with real-time messaging applications as soon as possible.

One of my classes I’m currently teaching at Shanxi University is a group of experienced professionals who will travel to overseas universities as visiting scholars. While some have been able to arrange supervising professors through their existing contacts, many have to actively seek their hosts. They are emailing potential supervisors, only to find that their emails never receive a reply. As they have little or no experience with email, they are not aware of the issue of email overload that the people receiving their emails would be suffering, so the lack of response understandably greatly distresses them. “Is there something wrong with me?” and “Am I not good enough?” are among the concerned questions I’ve been asked.

When an information communication medium has become so dysfunctional that it presents a distressing brick wall to people then it is really time for it to be abandoned with urgency.

Looking back, we’ve really known this for quite some time, but I would argue that the solutions we have tried to put in place have been akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Nearly ten years ago one of my employers in Australia was so concerned about the effect of email overload on external relationships that all staff were sent to do a training course in email management. A Bing search using the keywords “email management training” reveals that there are a plethora of such course offerings. Organisations have also sought to encourage employees to actively respond to emails, for example through a “24 hour rule” such as the one formerly recommended to the staff and students of Griffith University.

However, all that such courses and rules do is put the onus on increasingly overloaded staff to attempt to manage a problem that can only ever continue to get worse because of the impersonal disconnected nature of email. If it was possible to effectively “manage” email overload then we would have achieved this long ago.

The real solution is for email-dependent countries and organisations to move from email to real-time messaging as soon as possible. Some exciting new initiatives are starting to light the way forward, for example:

What can your organisation do to help make the transition from email to messaging?

Image source: Drowning in email by Xavier Vergés is licenced by CC BY 2.0.

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Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes (www.bruceboyes.info) is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (www.realkm.com), and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management professional. He is a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. His expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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