The EMail Charter?

Proof that just because people from TED are involved, does not mean it makes sense!

I have had this link come to my attention several times now, and each time I see it, I am struck by how naïve it is (though I am sure there are those who will argue that its naïvety is its beauty). While I agree with some of the points, I think others are out of line. Lets look at each of the points:

1) “Respect Recipients’ Time” While this is obviously a good idea, it is hardly unique to email. And I would argue that in many cases, email is more respectful than a phone call, or dropping by in person. First of all, phone calls and face-to-face interactions frequently involve significantly more extraneous communications of little to no value. In addition, calling or dropping-in interrupts what a person is doing. Unless the issue is urgent enough to require immediate resolution, an email (which can be handled asynchronously when it is convenient) is far more respectful of my time than other modes of communication.

2) “Short or Slow is not Rude” Short is not rude. The response should be long enough to address the issue, and no longer. Slow may not be rude, and may be unavoidable, but it is better to set expectations as to when you will respond to emails. If people know what to expect, then they are less likely to take issue. Not responding at all is a whole other problem.

3) “Celebrate Clarity” I wholeheartedly agree – but not just for email.

4) “Quash Open-Ended Questions” BS. Within the proper context, this is an appropriate way to collect information from a number of people on the way to building consensus, without calling an unnecessary meeting (or interrupting the work of several different people using a “more personal” approach).

5) “Slash Surplus cc’s” Absolutely! This seems to be a trend from larger companies with a CYA mentality.

6) “Tighten the Thread” more BS, with an arbitrary number thrown in for good measure. The thread should be as long as required, and no longer. When in doubt, do what makes sense.

7) “Attack Attachments” Absolutely. I would do away with all attachments, especially internally.
8) “Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR” Good idea in principle. Most of the times I have used them, they have generated a bunch more email explaining them.

9) “Cut Contentless Responses” Agreed.

10) “Disconnect!” This is just good time management. Manage your email in whatever way fits in to your overall time management process. Some people only process email during certain small time periods during the day. I know some that only process email on Monday mornings, or Friday afternoons. Whatever works for you.

The biggest point of contention I have with the whole “email is evil” trend is this idea that synchronous modes of communication such as phone, f2f, or IM are more respectful of another person’s time than email. If the response does not have to be synchronous, then async is more respectful of my time.

Is eMail dead?

I have always been a big fan of email (well, since email became prevalent, anyway). For me, it is a big help to be able to interact with people asynchronously – to be able to send questions or requests and let people deal with them when they have time (and them to me). This as opposed to a phone call or walking over to their office and demanding immediate attention, and interrupting whatever they are doing. I know not everyone shares my views on this. My peers at Whitehill felt pretty much the opposite about email – that it was a medium of last resort, and that face-to-face or phone communication were preferred. As with most things, I think the real answer is in balance and using the right tool for the context.

More and more, however, I am finding that email has become less useful. As a way of distributing specific documents within a team, it is still good. Same for setting up meetings. However, I have noticed a trend over recently (or longer than recently) for people to just ignore email. For the most part, unless a message is marked urgent, or is part of a project-specific interaction, I receive responses to only about 20% of email. I find it hard to believe that this could all be because of poor email etiquette (mine or others). I suspect the bigger problem is email overload – most of us receive far more email than we can possibly respond to. Perhaps email was more productive before it became so widespread. Then there were the years of spam overload, causing many to give up on email as a useful tool. Now (for me, anyway) email spam is no longer a problem. However, many people are still overloaded, even with spam eliminated.

So, is email as a useful business tool dead except for limited communications on projects?