Email makes you stupid – so what can we do about it?

Luis Suarez (@elsua), curator of the Life without eMail G+ community, has posted a Vodcast co-presented with Claire Burge (@claireburge)

Here’s the full video:


Here are my notes on the highlights of what Luis and Claire think is wrong with email:

Email creates a dumber workforce” (3:02), because (4:02) the structure of email forces an obsession with emptying the inbox without action.

Email is a selfish tool (4:59) – centred around individual, not team or company goals (because you cannot see the impact of your email on the other person’s workload).

Email doesn’t help people focus on work (7:20) – it misdirects focus and attention. Stuff just flows in, recipient is expected to filter and sort (7:45). People don’t have time, so fall back to just emptying the inbox and treating their email as a task list. This leads to inefficiency through constant task-switching (8:10).

The inefficiencies are not about the technology, but about the human behaviours it engenders (8:58).

[more and more] people justify their workload by how many emails they process (9:22) – so if we take away the email you they have nothing to do. The implication (10:27) is that all the company knowledge, contacts, content and tasks are locked in email

Email gets used as a tool for covertly managing staff (10:45) – yes some interactions need to be confidential, but most aren’t.

Knowledge is power (11:25) – share as little as possible. Which means (12:09) that when someone leaves the company, much of the knowledge they created is lost.

In an increasingly-complex world, email is no longer an effective productivity tool (12:48) – nowadays the environment is complex – multi-project, multi-team, multi-geo – this means companies need open collaboration (13:36) which email cannot provide. Email has been around so long (13:50) that people are scared to try other things. Email doesn’t engender the behaviours we need to be effective in the modern business world (15:08).

Some behaviours need to be unlearned, some need to be taken from email to a new environment (15:27):

Deep parallel between closed inbox mindset and static fixed job descriptions. What results is a series of blockages to the flow of work. (27:30)

Collaborative environment exposes the blocks, (27:56) but this leads to enquiry into the root causes of blockages, making it about the flow of work rather than about the person (28:24)

But, if you keep evolving the process to make the work better, then the job descriptions have to keep evolving too (29:08)

Social Bookmarking

Going back to basics, but on the principle of narrating my work, here’s a short post I published today inside the firewall…

What is it?

Most people will be familiar with the idea of “bookmarks” (aka “favourites”) in a web browser – the menu option on IE, Chrome, Safari, Firefox etc. to save the site links that I use most often, or find most interesting.

Social Bookmarking tools take this idea and extend it in ways that are not only useful to me as an individual, but which also make it simple to share links with other people.

At their simplest they are a web application to which you can add links (and they mostly provide little browser plugins that mean you can do it inside your browser). Two of the best known examples are Diigo and Delicious, and each of these also allow options such as tagging, marking links as private etc.

Beyond that, different services off different features, for example Diigo provides extended capabilities to annotate and highlight web pages

Why would I want to use it?

At a personal level, keeping links in a social bookmark service means that I can:

  • access my bookmarks wherever I am,
  • access my bookmarks on whatever device I am using to browse the web
  • use tagging to organise my bookmarks

Beyond the personal use, these tools have even more value when I work as part of a group or team:

  • choosing to follow other people’s bookmarks, as a way of using their knowledge as an intelligent filter of the “firehose” of information on the web
  • choosing to use specific tags for sharing information within a team
  • on some platforms, forming groups (private or open) into which I can post bookmarks and comments

Social Bookmarking in a learning context

One model for thinking about how individuals can best manage and create knowledge in a networked environment is Harold Jarche‘s “Seek Sense Share” framework.

Social Bookmarking is a key part of Seeking – “finding things out and keeping up to date”. The social aspect supports the practice of finding colleagues or commentators whose judgement I trust, and who I can use as “information filters”.

Other Resources

Diigo About Page FAQ page

Social Bookmarking on Wikipedia

My public links on Diigo

An experiment in working aloud

As part of the site revamp, I wanted a place where I could put “narrating my work” type posts that were outside of the main site flow – the nature of these are that they are often quick and partial, and I find having them in the main flow inhibits my writing.

The obvious place to start, was with a Custom Post Type, but unfortunately most of the things I use to write to this site (Word and the WordPress iOS app) don’t support CPTs.

A bit of digging, and I think I may have a workflow – certainly something I’m willing to try for a while:

  • writing in FargoDave Winer‘s nifty in-browser outliner
  • import of posts via RSS using FeedWordpress, posting as a custom post type (I love that you can choose a different CPT per feed if you wish)
  • a simplified theme design for the Working Aloud area of the site

Now I just need to use it….


Email – what’s right with it?

No tool is all good or all bad, so following on from “Email – what’s wrong with it?“, here are some of the reasons why it is useful:

  • Email is almost ubiquitous
  • … has been around a long time, so almost everyone (in a work world) knows how to use it (or thinks
    they do)
  • … allows asynchronous communication, especially with offline workers (actually so do other technologies)
  • … is well-suited to notification-type communications

I’ve run out of ideas – please feel free to add comments…

Email – what’s wrong with it?

Many have written on the issues that email causes, here are some highlights:

  • Email soaks up time – e.g. McKinsey in 2012 reckoned 30% of average office worker’s week was spent reading and answering email
  • … makes people feel they are being productive (when they are not)
  • … locks up information in silos – a lot of company knowledge creation is carried out in email threads visible only to those involved, and almost impossible for anyone else to discover, leading to duplication of work,
  • … is exclusive, with conversations only open to those who the sender sought to include
    • which can lead to lower quality work, because the conversation does not necessarily include the right people
    • and which completely prevents
  • … is intrusive – when you send me an email you force my attention to your issue, interrupting my thoughts
  • … is a terrible way to share lists of actions (especially if they are buried in an email chain
  • … spawns and propagates some of the worst forms of office politics with the use of cc and bcc

Lastly, no list of the things wrong with email would be a complete without a reference to Luis Suarez and his six+ year experiment on living and working without email. A good place to start is his summary post “Life without email – year 6, weeks 21 to 24