Monday, January 28, 2008

Email: What Hath the Internet Wrought?

I've been thinking a lot about email lately. I'm convinced, that after the personal computer, there have been few technical innovations that have so rapidly been adopted and have so radically changed the work environment. While the World Wide Web really caused the Internet to explode in growth, email delivered the Internet into every office with a real business purpose. So let's look at my personal timeline for a minute...

1988: Pat gets his first computer at work. It is a word processor for letters, forms, and academic papers.

ca. 1991: Pat discovers a 1200 baud modem and places where you can download software over dialup connections.

1992: Pat goes to work at Household International and is introduced to PROFS. email becomes part of everyday life, but it is only within the company and does not integrate calendaring.

1993: Pat discovers Chicago Online, part of the then-fledgling America Online. The service very quickly allows email to be sent to other services like Compuserve and GEnie.

1994: Corporate email finds the Internet.

1995: The Internet takes off.

So as I sit here today, email has been a part of my business life for just over 15 years. I would estimate that the transition from paper-based mail to email began in earnest about 1995. By 1997, email had effectively killed off paper-based mail and internal memoranda (at least in my life). So we have just over 10 years of hardcore, business to business communications via email. But that transition happened so quickly. While some folks had email prior to 1990, I would suggest that it moved from occasional tool to everyday workhorse for most companies between 1994 and 1996. That's a radical change in something less than four years, in my estimation. This development is really only eclipsed by the development of the personal computer. Arguably, if you mark the birth of the PC as 1981 (when the IBM PC was released), the PC started to enter mainstream businesses in force in the 1984 to 1986 timeframe. (Yes, the Apple and Tandy computers were around earlier, but they tended to be seen as curiosities.) By 1988, they were becoming ubiquitous in many companies. The next 8 years radically changed the workplace. Then the Internet and email changed it again.

So enough of this history lesson. Why is email on my mind? Well, in the past month, I've had two opportunities to speak about email management. Email management is very much top of mind for many records managers. We've had this stuff around for ten years or more and yet very few of us are managing it well. I sit here today with three personal email addresses and one business address. In a given day, my personal email addresses will collect perhaps 30 to 40 actionable emails (exclusive of spam and Listserve posts). I'll delete a lot of those (many are subscriptions or promotions for various things that I've asked for), respond to some, and save for reference others. At work, I see perhaps 15 to 20 emails a day, but that number is growing and the vast majority are business emails that require a response. Now based upon some statistical data, I'm actually somewhat behind the curve. Last month, I was on a panel discussion following a presentation by Michael Osterman of Osterman Research. His company's research indicates that the average employee receives and sends something like 140 email messages a day. I suppose that if I read all those Listserve postings, I might hit those numbers... Nonetheless, that's a lot of correspondence.

And think back to those days of yore... did anyone ever deal with 140 inbound and outbound personal letters a day? For the vast majority of us, I would say absolutely not. Many years ago, at one of my prior employers, the Records Management department received all of the company's paper mail. The Records staff would open all incoming mail that was not strictly "personal and confidential", review the mail, and determine if it should be copied, routed and filed, then send the original to the addressee. Outgoing mail was copied and distributed according to strict rules, but every piece of business correspondence was filed by Records in that manner. Email completely changed that process. In the early days, the same rules were applied to email as paper mail, except the recipients were required to send a paper copy of every email to Records for filing. That lasted less than a year. First the volume became too great, then the users didn't have the time to print and route the email. There were no tools that could manage the volumes effectively and anarchy took hold. We were later able to rein in the email to some extent, but email became a tsunami of records.

If you recall my earlier blog post on typing, I said that "...if everyone is a typist, everyone creates and files records. Welcome to full employment for records managers!" That is never more true than with email. My mother was a traditional secretary. She learned shorthand and typing in high school and would go into her boss' office to take down what he wanted to say in every letter. She would take the dictation, then transcribe the dictation into letters. He would glance at the letter, sign it, she'd make and file a copy, while mailing the original. To our thinking today, that's a terribly inefficient way to do business -- but it also meant that every piece of correspondence had to have good reason to be sent. It also enabled the sender to think about what was going to be sent -- first, while dictating, then, when it came back for signature. Days and weeks might pass between sending a letter and receiving a response. FedEx and the fax machine accelerated that a bit, but email changed the dynamic completely. That means that everyone has become a typist and a file clerk with volumes of correspondence never dreamed of in the past -- and with risks never dreamed of in the past. In the old days, it was pretty hard to accidentally distribute sensitive information to hundreds of people. Today, one keystroke can ruin a career. One email can help to destroy a company:

"Mike -- It might be useful to consider reminding the engagement team of our documentation and retention policy."

That was from Nancy Temple's infamous email in the Arthur Anderson / Enron debacle. The implication, of course (and never substantiated) was that Ms. Temple was providing cover for the Enron team to destroy records. But this is typical of many email messages. The context is not totally clear. The intent is really unknown. The tone is what you hear inside your head when you read it. And it is easy to infer both good and bad intent. As the author, you know what you meant -- but in the haste to get a response out and get on to the next message, you write something that is misinterpreted. And then things get interesting. For every problem solved by email, it seems that another comes along to take its place.

Today, I look at my personal email volumes and know that things are way out of hand. I probably keep too much of it (personally), but that has more to do with inexpensive disk space than anything else. Searches take forever and folder structures just don't cut it. At work, the volumes grow equally fast and we're really wrestling with solutions that meet our retention requirements, while not messing too much with the end users. The other presentation that I participated in this month allowed me to speak to user requirements. at the end of the day, I simply haven't found that holy grail of email management. Automatic classification has some promise, but it won't work for every organization and very often doesn't enable the granularity that is needed. In addition, the proliferation of personal email in the business environment is bordering on insane. With my new employer, I have tried very hard to keep personal email out of my Inbox. But it is very hard to do. And I have run across many people who don't separate business from personal -- their work computer is their only computer. So capture of every inbound email means that a lot of personal email would be saved.

Ten to twenty years of email for some employees also means that most have evolved their own habits (for good or bad) around email management. The far end of that spectrum represents employees who likely recall the old days of paper filing and might have retained some good habits. At the other end of the spectrum are employees fresh from school who have ten years of personal habits -- many of which may never involve use of the Delete key -- or involve overzealous application of the delete key.

The next several years will involve massive change management to get the proper behaviors embedded -- or it will mean that we simply capture everything and try to sort out the spam, garbage and personal email, while retaining what is important. At any rate, it will mean a significant educational effort for just about every employee in every organization -- and that assumes that we can get the genie back in the bottle.

The legal lessons are out there. Most email users have scars from mis-sent email messages or online flame wars. Yet the old habits die hard -- probably simply because the volumes are not going down and employees are pushed to be ever more productive in a global, semi-synchronous world.

It's closing on Midnight here in Chicago. Day has not quite broken in Europe. It is lunchtime in India and mid-afternoon in China. My Motorola Q is buzzing merrily through the evening as I receive messages from around the world. My personal Inboxes are reminding me that something new has arrived in my personal world. And as I write this, I'm periodically responding to personal and business email. As I sleep, those Inboxes will store more email and the cycle will repeat. PDAs and wireless communications allow you to receive and send email from anywhere at any time. That is the promise and the curse of email. It enables a global workforce and business. But it can also sit on your hip 24 hours a day reminding you that the company never sleeps -- and the sun never sets on records management. I guess we better figure this one out.

1 comment:

Andi said...

I've benefitted from your wisdom on the Records Management Listserv many times in the past, so I was thrilled to discover your blog. Thank you for your intelligent and entertaining posts! I will definitely be a regular reader.