E-Mail Overload: An Epidemic

17 02 2011

E-mail continues to be a life-changing advancement, allowing an ease of contact where a phone-call would be too informal.  While this is very true, e-mail is not without faults – it’s killing productivity.  In any large organization, the attempt to disseminate information to large groups results in mass e-mails, and if someone hits reply all, there’s another round of inbox alerts; oftentimes this means I’ll receive so much e-mail in a day I’ll lose at least one important piece of information or miss something that required an immediate response.  For some, sifting through e-mail resembles a full time job, heavy users receive about 1,000 e-mails a week that require their attention in addition to 1500 spam emails which require enough attention to determine they are in fact spam.  Recognizing this overburdening of e-mail, many organizations and groups are trying different methods or routes to distribute information to large groups of people to help with this information overload and the related attention fragmentation.

Many are turning to collaborative communication software to help with this e-mail breakdown, turning to social media applications such as Facebook, blogs, or wikis.   For instance, 6200 students at Virginia Tech use the ‘Math Emporium’ to take tests and receive instruction/tutoring, the hours and availability of which are subject to change.  To communicate this to 6200 students is difficult since frequent emails require too many resources, and physical postings of lab hours/tutoring availability were not effective methods for distributing information.  So Virginia Tech subscribed to a Twitter account, believing it to be a popular medium which allowed for easy and frequent updates.  However, Virginia Tech should have conducted at least a small survey to see who uses twitter – by the end of the semester only 65 students (of 6200) had subscribed to the Math Emporium Twitter, and only 18 of those responded to the end-of-year survey.  When using social media to connect to your stakeholders (whether investors, consumers, employees) it’s important you choose the tools to benefit the consumer since you are trying to reach them; otherwise you’ll learn, as Virginia Tech did, if your constituents aren’t already using a service, it’s unlikely they’ll start using it only to connect with you.

Today, blogs receive more attention than e-mail, requiring active participation since blog posts don’t fly into your inbox.  Additionally, blogs can serve a variety of purposes, so it’s important that you decide a blog’s purpose and intended audience before selecting what you should blog about or who should write it.  For the purpose of employee communication, oftentimes it’s most effective to have the CEO or similar high-level executive blogging about company accomplishments and aspirations, in addition to more personal topics as well.  Once again, there is no right answer to who should be blogging – it all depends on your company and what you hope to accomplish.  For instance, some organizations have found success allowing individual employees to blog, allowing for a more intimate look into day-to-day operations.

A blog as an internal communications medium can also be great in times of crisis, or when important information needs to be kept confidential but distributed rapidly.  For instance, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina an internal blog could have helped organize and mobilize health care workers, letting nurses and doctors know where and when help was needed – and while you may want to let patients know you are understaffed, it isn’t always such a good idea to let them know the severity.  The same type of situation can easily be applied to businesses.  For those who believe that more of everyone should be involved in internal communication, I suggest you check out Yammer.  A micro-blogging service similar to Twitter, except that only users with the same e-mail domain can join a specific network – Yammer was designed with internal communication specifically in mind.  Already more than 40,000 companies are using the service, because it allows for easy cross-departmental communication and helps to cut down the amount of e-mail floating through the company.

In order to lift some weight from the shoulders of employees, and combat the often overwhelming urge to keep up with e-mails, organizations should consider alternate methods of disseminating information.  Providing information in a stable medium, where that information cannot be deleted or lost, makes it easier for employees to reference information long after it was first issued.  Additionally, by offering this information in a space where employees have to actively search out information rather than forcing it into everyone’s inbox, it’s more likely that employees will recognize the information as valuable and remember it.

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16 03 2011
Changing the Top-Down Flow of Information « Cameron Carey's Blog

[…] touched on CEO blogging in previous posts, but their prevalence in corporations necessitates a dedicated post.  The reason CEO blogs are […]

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