E-Mail Hell

The Greek gods who sentenced Sisyphus to an eternity of rollin’ that boulder up the mountain, watchin’ it roll back to earth and then startin’ all over again knew their Advanced Mental Torture 1.01. There are few things more poisonous than having to waste great slabs of time on profitless and ultimately ineffectual hard yakka.

So perhaps some god has taken a serious set against business and business people, because with more than half a million e-mails deluging inboxes every few seconds, managing information glut is rapidly becoming a Sisyphean task. Consider this statistic and you’ll know why: research firm IDC estimates more than 1.4 trillion e-mail messages were sent from North American businesses in 2001, up from 40 billion in 1995.

Recent studies show employees now spend anywhere from 49 minutes to four hours a day on e-mail, much of it jokes or junk, with the amount of time spent continuing to rise. Analysts variously reckon 33 per cent of e-mail is useless, that the average Aussie CEO gets at least 60 e-mails a day, that one-third of business e-mails are not answered within 24 hours, that 66 per cent of companies have an electronic junk mail — or spam — problem, and that 38 per cent of consumers view spam and privacy as a greater threat than viruses. We know this, because the analysts are so fond of e-mailing to tell us so.

And all those daily urgings to increase your penis size, make a fortune working from home, share multimillion dollar profits from Nigeria, get fantastic deals on toner cartridges and improve your spamming techniques are having an affect on productivity, corporate liability, morale and even users’ feelings about e-mail. These days, we get work done between e-mails. We’re all at risk of falling to what psychologist David Lewis calls “information fatigue syndrome”, with symptoms including exhaustion, anxiety, memory failure and shortened attention span. “Having too much information can be as dangerous as having too little,” Lewis says.

In 1998 Reuters Business Information surveyed 1313 business managers from the UK, the US, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, to find one in four were suffering ill-health related to the sheer volume of information received, with 62 per cent of Australian business managers reporting information overload was making them ill. Reuters found information overload makes managers work late and take work home, cancel social activities and suffer exhaustion and tension in the workplace. Managers felt forced to collect information simply to stay competitive or to justify their decisions, a pressure that was costing business lost time searching for information that frequently cost more than its value.

“All that sending and receiving, responding and deleting is taking an enormous toll on workplace productivity,” says Nancy Flynn, author of The ePolicy Handbook: Designing and Implementing Effective E-mail, Internet, and Software Policies and Writing Effective E-Mail, and executive director of The ePolicy Institute (www.epolicyinstitute.com).

“The real problem is that executives have singularly failed to understand the impact of document proliferation and management on what’s acknowledged to be the most valuable and scarcest of corporate resources — their time, and the time of managers and other key professionals,” says Peter Richardson, professor of Strategic Management Queen’s University School of Business, Ontario. “Information technology has not only failed to live up to the hollow promise of a paperless office, it has actually created a business world in which document diversity has become the curse of professional productivity.”

Other risks also abound, and are growing. Elron Software’s 1999 E-Mail Abuse Study showed 86 per cent of employees send and receive personal e-mail at work; 60 per cent of employees send or receive adult-oriented e-mail at work; and 55 per cent of employees send or receive politically incorrect or otherwise offensive e-mail at work. Such personal e-mail use in a business context exposes employers to a range of risks: from workplace lawsuits through to lost productivity to e-security breaches and e-sabotage.

And spam is growing, like some malign tumour on the business corpus. The Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk E-mail (CAUBE.AU) says the amount of spam received increased sixfold between 2000 and 2001 and is doubling every four-and-a-half months. US anti-spam firm Brightmail estimated a year ago that spam constituted 10 per cent of all e-mail. That figure has jumped to 20 per cent.

Send in Anger, Repent Forever

Gartner says the one obvious way to survive what it calls the “e-maelstrom” is to apply greater discipline. E-mail senders, it says, have an obligation to make life easier for the recipients of their messages, while receivers must be rigorous in checking and processing incoming mail. And all must be aware of the potential for e-mail to come back and haunt you. “The IS organisation needs to lay down guidelines for the way e-mail is used throughout the enterprise and ensure that all staff members receive the necessary training,” advises Gartner. It points to future innovation from dominant mailers — such as Microsoft — that will better characterise e-mail and improve routing and handling.

While we wait, some analysts recommend employers take a three-step approach to reducing e-mail headaches to help turn e-mail from foe back to friend. It involves a written e-mail and Internet use policy, content filtering software and an ongoing employee education program to help keep online employees in line.

By using e-mail, companies face several threats, Flynn notes. These range from legal threats to network congestion, and embrace the potential for legal liability, confidentiality breaches, damage to reputation, lost productivity, network congestion and downtime and being forced to retrieve e-mails in response to a court order. Companies should reduce electronic liabilities by notifying employees in writing that the company will not tolerate the electronic sending, receiving or viewing of offensive material.

“No workplace ever can be 100 per cent safe from e-mail risks. But with a written e-policy, filtering software and employee education, employers take big strides toward reducing e-risks, increasing productivity and protecting corporate assets,” Flynn says. Employers should implement, disseminate and enforce e-mail and Internet use policies that are tailored to their specific business needs.

According to Flynn, the e-mail policy must explicitly describe both permitted and prohibited uses of the employer’s e-mail and Internet systems, and make clear that employees do not have an expectation of privacy in their e-mail and Internet use. It should spell out that employees’ business and personal e-mail or Internet communications can or will be accessed or monitored by the company. “Employers may need to review employee e-mail or Internet traffic during internal investigations or to prevent employee abuse of its systems. To accomplish these goals, employers need to familiarise themselves with the latest variations of e-mail and Internet filtering software, as well as stay abreast of the developing law in this area,” Flynn says.

Containing the Deluge

Dr Jay Burmeister, lecturer, Information Environments Program, School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at the University of Queensland, has conducted an interim study on the negative affects of e-mail on productivity. He says there are two sides to the e-mail equation. The behavioural side consists of those things people can do at an individual or organisational level to try to a) reduce the amount of useless information and b) cope with the information that comes in. The technical issues include designing better e-mail programs that support people in those behavioural endeavours, both at the individual and the organisational level. CIOs need to consider all four aspects in seeking to contain the negative affects, he says, and recognise the need to develop different techniques and strategies for the four different quadrants.

“As an example on the individual behavioural side of things there are a number of tips for personal things you can do, like turning off the beeper so as not to allow the e-mail to interrupt you,” says Burmeister. “You can also select three times a day to read it, so you feast rather than graze all day. That’s an individual work practice you can get a hold of to try and reduce the disruptive nature of e-mail.

“If you looked at the individual technical side, it’s things like learning to use your e-mail software, learning how to use the filter and setting it up. Then at the technical corporate level I’ve heard one company turns their e-mail server off between 11.00 and 1.00 every day, which means there’s a two-hour period where people are not going to be interrupted by e-mail.”

Other organisational technical initiatives include putting in virus and spam filters, he says, while at organisational behavioural level, people need to get together to agree on an appropriate strategy. For instance, too many people “cc” their boss on too many e-mails, seeking a pat on the back, or to cover their butt. The organisation should agree on the sort of things employees may and may not send to the boss.

“You can also put little things at the beginning of the header: things like ‘ACT’ which means an action is required immediately, or ‘FYI’, meaning you don’t need to read it now, you can read it later, which helps other people to know whether your message is urgent, whether it’s just for information and so on,” advises Burmeister.

The organisation should agree on protocols for how it will manage the flow of information. People need to be encouraged to think about the most appropriate way to broadcast information, which in some cases will mean putting messages on the post boards in the coffee room rather than sending an e-mail. The policy should also embrace personal use of e-mail, joke e-mails and so on, and sexism and racism. Depending on the management style of the organisation, the policy can be achieved either by consensus or dictum, or anywhere along the continuum.

Broadcast News – Not!

When senders put a summary at the beginning of every e-mail, recipients are relieved of some of the responsibility of filtering e-mail, Burmeister says.

“One of the problems with broadcasting [a message] in an organisation is you really don’t know who it’s appropriate to, so that’s why you broadcast on a particular e-mail list. That then puts the onus on the receivers to filter,” he says. “Senders can take responsibility by putting a pr?cis at the top, saying this is what this e-mail is about, and then people can very quickly delete it if it’s not relevant to them. Also putting up there when you would like a reply by, helps people to manage their processing of information and make timely decisions about when it is appropriate to read it.”

When that does not happen recipients should take their own responsibility for filtering by carefully reading the headers, noting the sender and subject. Some golden rules for filtering include:

— Ignore reading junk mail. — Be selective when responding to messages. — Limit the time spent dealing with e-mail, for example by opening e-mail only at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day. — Be careful about giving out your e-mail address. — Prepare brief and readable e-mail to deter the need for multiple messages. — Avoid using e-mail when “problem solving” needs to occur.

Gartner notes that while e-mail systems were never designed to support records management, content management systems are increasingly looking for ways to include fax, recordings of live voice conversations, voice-mail, instant messages, digitised paper documents, e-mail messages and attachments in their database. “The ability to identify valuable e-mails requires content-aware classification technologies that are only now starting to appear for use with e-mail systems. Creating an e-mail archive is often the first step to including e-mail as part of a more integrated content management system,” according to Gartner.

“In my opinion,” says Queen’s University’s Richardson, “document management is probably the single largest productivity, revenue and cost improvement opportunity available today to many private sector firms, and certainly public sector organisations.”

SIDEBAR: The ePolicy Handbook

The ePolicy Handbook: Designing and Implementing Effective E-mail, Internet, and Software Policies, by Nancy Flynn, offers the tools, resources, and guidance to any company interested in managing its own e-risk. Published by AMACOM Books www.amacombooks.org

Chapter 4: Developing an Effective E-Risk Management Policy

In the age of electronic communication, there simply is no way to guarantee a completely risk-free workplace. Employers can, however, limit their liability by developing and implementing comprehensive e-risk management programs that address document creation and content, document retention and deletion, e-policy enforcement, and employee privacy expectations.

Give Your Employees Rules to Work By. To help reduce exposures and manage overall e-risks, responsible employers must establish and enforce policies governing employees’ electronic writing. Settle for nothing less than good, clean commentary running through your employees’ e-mail.

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