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Posts Tagged ‘email’

by: Robert.hillard
26  Sep  2015

Email works too well

Everyone who regularly feels overwhelmed by their email would agree that there is a problem.  The hundreds of articles about the issue typically make the same assumption and are wrong. Writer after writer bemoans email as inefficient and an obstacle to productivity. The problem isn’t that email is inefficient, rather, it is too efficient and knows no boundaries.

If email wasn’t productive, only a fraction of today’s emails would be sent.  It allows today’s worker to answer more questions from, and give more directions to, their colleagues in a shorter amount of time than past generations could have imagined possible.

Personal boundaries

In years gone by, work was done at the office.  To continue working at home meant loading paper files into a briefcase, a process that put natural limits of how much could be done out-of-hours.  Even if a large number of memos were written, replies were not going to be received until they went through the internal mail or postal service.

I’ve written before about using email more effectively (see Reclaim email as a business tool).  While there is much that we can do individually, I believe that email is the sharp edge of a technology wedge that challenges our fundamental assumptions about the way we work.

This technology wedge has removed many natural barriers to working as much as we choose.  Many argue that the freedom to work puts the onus of responsibility back on the individual.  This may be true, but we have not invested in developing skills for individuals to know how much work is enough.  We also need to decide, as a society, what attributes we want to encourage in our most successful workers.

A competitive economy means that the most ambitious constantly outdo each other to deliver value for their workplace.  Many see pulling-back, by putting boundaries in place, as reducing their competitiveness in a tough world.

Recognising this, some countries have attempted to put in place limits, most famous is the French 35-hour working week.  The challenges of global employers and an economic downturn have arguably blunted the impact of limiting the hours that individuals work.  In a world where work and play can be divided into seconds as an email is checked while waiting in a supermarket queue, what is the meaning of working hours anyway?

If countries can’t put limits in place, some employers are taking matters into their own hands in an attempt to improve the wellbeing of their staff.  For instance, Daimler employees return from leave with an empty inbox.

Alternatives to email

Given that email overload is such a problem, it is no wonder that there are a wide range of alternatives that have been suggested.  Workflow and Enterprise Content Management (ECM) have been high on the list for a long time now yet neither has made much of a dent on our inboxes.

Perhaps the issue is the shear flexibility of email and the cost of trying to configure workflow or ECM solutions to each individual use case.  They definitely have an important role to play but the amount of email they actually displace is relatively small (and in fact they rely on email as their notification mechanisms).

More recently social media has been heralded as the email killer.  As much as messaging on these platforms is both convenient and used extensively, they have not replaced the inbox.  In fact, more and more are configuring their email clients to be their interface into the messaging stream.

The reason that each of these technologies have so comprehensively failed in their quest to rid us of email overload is that email works really well if your goal is to do more work.  It is however encouraging us to work too much and facilitating a form of communication that is often confrontational and can damage the feeling of wellbeing of staff and relationships between employees.

The opportunity

To replace email, designers of new solutions have to throw out their old assumption of email being an inefficient tool.  Rather than trying to make email more efficient they need to focus on fixing the three real issues: 1) email is efficient but overwhelming; 2) there is no way of naturally limiting the amount of work hitting our inboxes; and 3) job sharing and delegation while absent does not work well.

Before launching headlong into building new products, there is a huge opportunity for research into each of these issues.  How can the problems be measured?  Which organisations are better at reducing their impact and what are the attributes of the solutions they have used?  Is there any evidence that junk email is actually taking a material amount of time for the average worker?  What are the health impacts of information overload and does it matter to society?

Just because existing email alternatives have missed the point, by assuming that email is somehow unproductive, that doesn’t mean there aren’t better solutions.  Freed to look to email as a productivity tool, the focus will move from email filtering and simplification to workload management and sharing.

We need to decide as professionals how we want to work.  Should time away from the office be protected?  Do we really know how much work we are really doing in an average week?  Is it OK for those seeking to get ahead to simply do more work than anyone else?

Those of us in the middle of our careers are the first generation to work electronically.  As pioneers we have a responsibility to set the tone for generations to come.  Will we sentence our children to work in white collar sweatshops or realise the potential of technology to create better workplaces for everyone?

Category: Enterprise Content Management, Enterprise2.0
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by: Ocdqblog
12  Sep  2013

Big Data is the Library of Babel

Richard Ordowich, commenting on my Hail to the Chiefs post, remarked how “most organizations need to improve their data literacy.  Many problems stem from inadequate data definitions, multiple interpretations and understanding about the meanings of data.  Skills in semanticstaxonomy and ontology as well as information management are required.  These are skills that typically reside in librarians but not CDOs.  Perhaps hiring librarians would be better than hiring a CDO.”

I responded that maybe not even librarians can save us by citing The Library of Babel, a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges, which is about, as James Gleick explained in his book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, “the mythical library that contains all books, in all languages, books of apology and prophecy, the gospel and the commentary upon that gospel and the commentary upon the commentary upon the gospel, the minutely detailed history of the future, the interpolations of all books in all other books, the faithful catalogue of the library and the innumerable false catalogues.  This library (which others call the universe) enshrines all the information.  Yet no knowledge can be discovered there, precisely because all knowledge is there, shelved side by side with all falsehood.  In the mirrored galleries, on the countless shelves, can be found everything and nothing.  There can be no more perfect case of information glut.”

More than a century before the rise of cloud computing and the mobile devices connected to it, the imagination of Charles Babbage foresaw another library of Babel, one where “the air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.”  In a world where word of mouth has become word of data, sometimes causing panic about who may be listening, Babbage’s vision of a permanent record of every human utterance seems eerily prescient.

Of the cloud, Gleick wrote about how “all that information—all that information capacity—looms over us, not quite visible, not quite tangible, but awfully real; amorphous, spectral; hovering nearby, yet not situated in any one place.  Heaven must once have felt this way to the faithful.  People talk about shifting their lives to the cloud—their informational lives, at least.  You may store photographs in the cloud; Google is putting all the world’s books into the cloud; e-mail passes to and from the cloud and never really leaves the cloud.  All traditional ideas of privacy, based on doors and locks, physical remoteness and invisibility, are upended in the cloud.”

“The information produced and consumed by humankind used to vanish,” Gleick concluded, “that was the norm, the default.  The sights, the sounds, the songs, the spoken word just melted away.  Marks on stone, parchment, and paper were the special case.  It did not occur to Sophocles’ audiences that it would be sad for his plays to be lost; they enjoyed the show.  Now expectations have inverted.  Everything may be recorded and preserved, at least potentially: every musical performance; every crime in a shop, elevator, or city street; every volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; every card played or piece moved in an online game; every rugby scrum and cricket match.  Having a camera at hand is normal, not exceptional; something like 500 billion images were captured in 2010.  YouTube was streaming more than a billion videos a day.  Most of this is haphazard and unorganized.”

The Library of Babel is no longer fiction.  Big Data is the Library of Babel.

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Category: Data Quality, Information Development
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by: Ocdqblog
27  Jul  2013

Information Underwhelm

In the era of big data, we’re confronted by the question Brenda Somich recently blogged: How do you handle information overload?  “Does today’s super-connected and informative online environment allow us to work to our potential?” Somich asked.  “Is all this information really making us smarter?”

I have blogged about how much of the unstructured data that everyone is going gaga over is gigabytes of gossip and yottabytes of yada yada digitized.  While most of our verbalized thoughts were always born this way, with word of mouth becoming word of data, big data is making little data monsters of us all.

Data Addiction

In a way, we have become addicted to data.  In her post, Somich discussed how we have become so obsessed with checking emails, news feeds, blog posts, and social media status updates, that even after hours of using information have gone by, we are still searching for our next data fix.  Our smartphones have become our constant companions, ever-present enablers reminiscent of the nickname that the once most popular smartphone went by — CrackBerry.

In his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers explained that “in the sixteenth century, when information was physically piling up everywhere, it was the ability to erase some of it that afforded a sense of empowerment and control.”

“In contrast, the digital information that weighs on us today exists in a nonphysical medium, and this is part of the problem.  We know it’s out there, and we have words to represent and quantify it.  An exabyte, for instance, is a million million megabytes.  But that doesn’t mean much to me.  Where is all that data, exactly?  It’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  We’re physical creatures who perceive and know the world through our bodies, yet we now spend much of our time in a universe of disembodied information.  It doesn’t live here with us, we just peer at it through a two-dimensional screen.  At a very deep level of the consciousness, this is arduous and draining.”

Without question, big data is forcing us to revisit information overload.  But sometimes it’s useful to remember that the phrase is over forty years old now — and it originally expressed the concern, not about the increasing amount of information, but about our increasing access to information.

Just because we now have unprecedented access to an unimpeded expansion of information doesn’t mean we need to access it right now.  Just because disembodied information is everywhere doesn’t mean that our bodies need to consume it.

Information Underwhelm

One thing we must do, therefore, to avoid such snafus as the haunting hyper-connected hyperbole of the infinite inbox, is acknowledge the infinitesimal value of most of the information we consume.

When you are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information you have access to, stop for a moment and consider how underwhelming most of it is.  I think part of the reason we keep looking for more information is because we’re so unsatisfied with the information we’ve found.

Although information overload is a real concern and definitely does frequently occur, far more often I think it is information underwhelm that is dragging us down.

How much of the content of those emails, news feeds, blog posts, and social media status updates you read yesterday, or even earlier today, do you actually remember?  If you’re like me, probably not much, which is why we need to mind the gap between our acquisition and application of information.

As Anton Chekhov once said, “knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”  By extension, consuming information is of no value unless you put it to use.  And an overwhelming amount of the information now available to us is so underwhelming that it’s useless to consume.

Tags: , , , ,
Category: Data Quality, Information Development

by: Robert.hillard
18  Dec  2012

Reclaim email as a business tool

As many of us prepare to go on leave over the Christmas/New Year period we’re cleaning-up our email and perhaps grumbling about the avalanche of electronic messages!  I was reminded of a post I wrote in 2010 when I defended email as a business tool.  Two years later, and I think that email is as much a part of our lives as it was then.  That doesn’t mean we can’t do it better and I figured that it is timely to re-post my earlier comments.

Any serious business discussion about information must include email.  Like it, or loathe it, email is a major part of every knowledge worker’s life.  Unfortunately many staff have grown to hate its intrusion into their personal time, the fragmentation of their work and the expectation of a rapid reply to important messages.

The result has been that many people argue that email should be phased out and replaced by the next generation of social networking and collaboration tools within the enterprise.  To some extent, this is true with collaboration and business messaging tools continuing to gain in popularity.  However, email still remains the most popular way for most people within business to share information.

There are some things that we can do and in this post I suggest two quick actions that can change the email culture.

First, create the concept of “email bankruptcy”.  The term has been around for a while, but it is time to give it some formality.  Many staff report that exiting the company they work for, and the resultant clearing of their email, is a tremendous relief.  In effect we’ve created a reward for resignation, which is usually the exact opposite of the behaviour we want to encourage.

A potential solution is to allow staff to declare themselves “email bankrupts”.  The act of doing so will result in a declaration, through a message to all who have sent an email outstanding in their inbox, that nothing prior to the given date will be read or actioned.  The bankrupt then has a clean inbox and a fresh start.

Declaring bankruptcy should have some consequences, but they must not be too serious (name and shame would normally suffice).  In addition, like a financial bankrupt, they should be given some assistance to help them avoid the situation in the future.

Second, encourage staff (starting with yourself) to batch email sends.  Email was created based on the analogy of paper memos.  Those memos went through an internal or external mail system (“snail mail”) that caused a natural lag in the communication.  People typically looked at their incoming mail in the morning when they came to work.  If there was a backlog of mail they took it home in their briefcase to read and reply – but the sending was done the next day.

There is nothing wrong with doing work out-of-hours.  What is a problem is that the resulting messages appear in our colleague’s inboxes within moments of us sending them, creating a reminder that they should perhaps be working as well.  Worse, the near instant nature of email encourages responses that are rapid rather than considered – leading to many people working through something that in the past required just one person to do it properly.

The solution is to batch email in the same way that paper memos were in the past.  Email clients typically allow you to select a “delay” option.  For instance, in Outlook, go to the options tab and select “delay delivery”.  Set the delay to the next business day when working after hours and to a time several hours hence when responding to an email during business hours.

The result of this batching is that you still get the sense of being in control of your inbox without the depressing reality of a flood of replies coming in as fast as you deal with them.  As people get used to you working this way they will consider their reply carefully so as to maximise the value in the information that you return, knowing that they can’t create a dynamic conversation.

Email is a powerful tool and to reject it outright because of its shortcomings would be a mistake.  We must, however, all work to make it much more effective.

Category: Enterprise Content Management, Enterprise2.0
1 Comment »

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