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Taking e-mail back to the future

In his latest blog based on business management themes and how they relate to Time Technology, Peter Skeffington talks about the role of e-mail in 2018.

For many years we have all been aware of the ever growing number of e-mails that we are receiving and the negative impact that this growth has had on its effectiveness as a communication medium. 20 years ago when I was working for GE, I was receiving seventy e-mails a day. I suspect that people today dream of receiving as few as seventy e-mails in a day! However, it is not only the growth in the number of e-mails, but also the way in which people are using e-mail that has resulted in the deterioration of its effectiveness. In order to arrive at better solutions we need to understand what has driven these changes.

E-mail was initially designed to be a point to point communication tool. Highly effective at sharing information quickly with another party unbounded by physical location constraints. Indeed, when I first implemented e-mail at the business back in the mid 90’s (not that long ago really), we used it solely for communicating externally with customers, suppliers and partners. However, pretty soon it started to be used for internal communication, and this is when things started to get complicated.

Firstly, we started cc’ing in large swathes of people to basic communication e-mails. Sometimes necessary, often unnecessary, but certainly easy to do. This, of course, invited further rounds of e-mails confirming that another person has done something else, or that they don’t agree that the first person has done the right thing, and so it begins …. multiple e-mails flying around to large numbers of people adding minimal value to the business and yet requiring significant resource time to process.

Next, we started using e-mail for ‘collaboration’ purposes, sending out e-mails requesting comment, ideas or opinion on a project or initiative. As a medium, it has shown itself to be unfit for this purpose with e-mails flying backwards and forwards from multiple parties, crossing over with each other, with no real structure such that it’s hard to know who has seen what comment when … Again, multiple e-mails that fail to deliver against the collaboration goal and waste people’s time. Throw document attachments into the mix and this gets really messy and ineffective. 

Finally, an unintended consequence of e-mail is that it has tended to de-personalise communications such that people use language in their e-mails that they would not in a face to face conversation, or they spend less time thinking about the language such that the message can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Overall result – too much e-mail that wraps up too much of our valuable time while delivering little business value and potentially causing misunderstandings or schisms between business members. Not good. Even in a smaller business like Time Technology we have experienced this happening.

So, what to do? Well, Time Technology have recently adopted Salesforce as our corporate platform, and as part of this move we have made a decision to embrace Salesforce Chatter as a simple collaboration tool in place of internal e-mails. We believe that every internal communication is most likely related to one or more of a customer, contact, project, opportunity or case (an object in Salesforce language), and should be stored in Salesforce accordingly. As such why not just use Chatter against the appropriate object and ensure that all appropriate parties are notified when communications occur. Made complete sense to us, so we have stopped using e-mail for almost all internal communications. Use Chatter or speak to someone. Use e-mail for external communications only. That is basically our corporate policy.

So here we are back where I was in the 90’s, albeit with the advantage of collaboration technology!

It is early days for us, and I am sure we will learn lessons over the coming months. We already had to make some customisations in Salesforce workflow to ensure that the right people get notified on relevant communications, and there will be more tinkering to come. However, by taking this approach we have undoubtedly reduced e-mail, ensured that communication is stored against the right objects and records and made available to all relevant parties as needed.

Finally, early indications are that this approach is resulting in our people creating more carefully constructed communications with less controversial language. When we have our team calls I am seeing that everyone seems to be more up to speed with the matter being discussed and that there is a different vibe to how the team is talking to each other. Very interesting!

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