Thursday, July 10, 2008

There is no email overload

- there is just less and less other work to do. Machines do more and more of our work - but there is one thing that they still cannot do - it is contact with other people. Computers can check the spelling of an email, compute some coefficients from a complicated formula but still suck at understanding humans and would not read or write that email for us.

Email is our work - communication with other humans is the task that still cannot be automated. That's why I am rather sceptical about the productivity boost of "no email days" introduced in some corporations. I suspect they just don't measure the right things.

All this does not mean that we should do all this human communication work in email - only that currently this is the tool most people use. Perhaps we could do this work in a bit more efficient way if we had a more complete toolbox.


Get-it-Done Guy said...

I respectfully both agree and disagree. Communication with others is hugely important for many jobs. But e-mail tends to be a very poor way to do it.

Most people write poorly in e-mail. They don't organize their thoughts, so it can take several e-mail exchanges to clarify what's going on.

E-mail also arrives out of order, requiring the reader to switch contexts as they go through an inbox with possibly hundreds of messages. The chance that you'll get their concentrated attention for long enough to give real thought to your message is hit-or-miss.

At the end of the day, e-mail can be great for exchange of reference information. For building and maintaining relationships, however, I'd put in a vote for the phone.

Stever Robbins
host of the Get-it-Done Guy podcast

zby said...

Thanks for the comment. I must agree that I oversimplified everything in the post. My main point was that the communication work is real work - and that since we do less and less of other work then will do more and more of it. The fact that we do it now in email is just a coincidence in this reasoning.

Nathan Zeldes said...

Quite true... computers can't communicate in our place. There is, however, another thing they can't do, and that is engage in creative thinking; and creative thinking requires stretches of contiguous, uninterrupted time.

This is a key motivation to reduce email overload - because it is a constant source of distractions as the messages keep popping up.

Incidentally, the "no email day" experiment we've run at Intel is not about not doing email - it is about encouraging voice communication as a better alternative whenever possible, notably when the other person sits nearby. Nobody is disputing the value of email as a primary comm tool in other cases.