E-Mail is not the Problem

There are only a few types of email. Understanding and dealing with each appropriately will improve the quality of our communications – sparing our coworkers the burden of dealing with our mail that does not accomplish a purpose.

E-mail is top of mind for many people now.  The New York Times and other mainstream media sites have jumped on the bandwagon bemoaning the flood of e-mails burying us all.

“It is a poor craftsman who blames his tool” – or so it’s been said.  With so many of us abusing the same tool you’d think we would have figured it out by now.  But it’s not just tool abuse that is burying us.  We need some new disciplines– and at least one new tool.


The cure to our collective problem starts with each of us.  Just because we can send an e-mail doesn’t mean we should.  Spam not withstanding, we each are inflecting a small wound on each other when we send an e-mail that does not accomplish a purpose.  Be purposeful in what you say.  Be purposeful in what you send.  Are you informing/influencing, entertaining or collaborating?

Informing/Influencing:  Who needs to know?  If everyone needs to know then e-mail is not the right answer.  Post it on a web site, or a bathroom wall.  Whatever works.  How do you know who needs to know?  That’s a post in itself, but until then give some critical thought to each person you copy on each e-mail.

Entertaining:  Please don’t.  The world is full of people sending humorous and inspirational messages.  You can not improve the world order one bit by forwarding the latest collection of jokes.  Believe me – someone already beat you to the punch.

Collaborating:  This is our greatest opportunity for improvement.  There is a genuine need in this space – but we have not decided to use the right tool.  In my role, work is measured in issues, risks and action items.  None of these units of work are best accomplished through e-mail.  A group collaborating on an issue should have a central discussion – open to all stakeholders – of the decision criteria.  Risks likewise should have consequences, likelihood and other characteristics described in one place.  Finally, action items are done, being worked, or not really in action.  Communicate status – done or not done – and any associated issues and risks.  Do it in one place.

GTD advocates (and I’m one) describe a discipline for (mostly) reacting to what the world throws at you.  We need just a little more scaffolding around what we should do when communicating with others.  If enough of the GTD’ers take up the cause, the volume of non-UBE (ham) will be reduced.


We have the tools in front of us.  Any of the threaded discussion boards meet the need.  The biggest problem with these kinds of tools is they are either too public – or too unstructured.  Imagine a hybrid tool which documents community understanding once – in a central place.  All we need is some enterprising individual to take a basic discussion board and add some ‘smarts’ so that leaders (anyone who has an issue, task or risk) can pin an item to the board and others can link items and add depth.  Now add a nicer user interface and I think you’ll have a winning enterprise application.