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Email Overload Cannot be Solved by Changes to Just Email

by Craig Roth  |  February 7, 2012  |  3 Comments

Have you gotten any emails with this Email charter attached that points to “10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral”? 

I’ve seen a few examples, but the “email charter” is one of the better and more organized attempts I’ve seen.  Unfortunately, these email etiquette screeds suffer from the problem that they focus on email. 

I’m convinced that you can’t solve email overload by just addressing email.  Email is just one part of the overall information workplace that consists of many communication and collaboration mechanisms (technical and non-technical).  If doing certain things in email is a no-no, then where should you do them.  Here are examples from the email charter and my response:

  • “Quash Open-Ended Questions”: Fine, then what is the appropriate time, method, process to ask open ended questions?
  • “Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR”: Maybe there’s a better technology for sending short messages?  There’s several, including one actually named “short message service”!
  • “Slash Surplus cc’s”: Agreed, but what do I do when I want to let lots of people know I’m fully open to informing them and acknowledge that any one of them may be very interested in what’s going on?
  • “Tighten the Thread”: OK, this one is on the right path.  It mentions the etiquette breach(“it’s rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails”) and then suggests an alternative (channel switching to a phone call instead). 

This advice usually lacks an understanding of the need even if you don’t like the medium with which it was addressed.  Yes, sometimes people want others involved in determining the point or action items rather than encapsulating it up top in the first sentence.  Sometimes people need to communicate very short messages.  Sometimes they want to have unstructured, open ended discussions.  Sometimes they want to let a large group of people know they are included and can be informed if desired.  Sometimes they want to quickly deliver a multi-megabyte presentation to a group of people  Just telling peers that these make for annoying emails and to “stop it” is not productive.

Face it: these different conversational needs exist and if email isn’t the right way to do them, then the right answer isn’t to lengthen, shorten, reword, and re-address the message to shoehorn it into your ideal email.  The right answer is to treat the message need as valid and describe what other channel should be used instead. 

If you’re trying to give advice to information workers, rather than an email etiquette primer, spend that time instead advising them to log into their IM tool every morning and keep the presence status up to date, making use of discussion forums for long conversations, using wikis and document libraries instead of attachments, using blogging or social networking to keep people informed without long cc lists.

Moreover, recognize that every organization has a different mix of culture, behavior patterns, information needs, and technology.  I’d rather see advice that helps organizations craft their own responses to their information environment (like my attention management conceptual architecture) rather than a stock set of rules that can’t possibly take an organization’s expectations, needs, and capabilities into account.

Category: attention-management  information-work  

Craig Roth
Research VP, Tech and Service Providers
7 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends...Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Email Overload Cannot be Solved by Changes to Just Email

  1. You are right the ten step email charter ignores the need to look outside email. There is an alternative the Nine Ps of Smart Email which takes account of the need to look out the inbox and be more selective about when to and not to use email. See

  2. Craig Roth says:

    Yes, I like your charter better. And bonus points for calling email a “distraction” rather than an “interruption”.

  3. Craig,

    Thank you for putting into words what a lot of our users feel. Granted, their experience is in a personal email context, but that’s like an email overload double whammy after dealing with it at work. While I applaud efforts to address behavior, this is not an etiquette problem, it’s a right tool for the job problem. Our users say email will continue to play an important role, but they need a different experience (and different apps) for their business life, social life and transactional life. There’s some fresh thinking and new approaches emerging that offer some hope when you need more than Miss Manners.

    Richard Gerstein, CEO, ZigMail

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