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The rise and fall of corporate electronic mail

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue March, March 1 - March 31, 2001 | BY Sylvia Lanz 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Too much of a good thing confounds company communications.

This author would appreciate if anyone could explain to her why her nine year old son needs to use e-mail to inform his best friend, a friend whom he sees daily at school, that there are some handy tips and tricks to be found on the Lego Website relative to Lego Racers(tm). Sentences starting with "In MY day . . ." and other suitable clich�s come to mind!

And yet, was it not in 1988 that this same author relied on the magic of e-mail to keep alive a love affair as it stopped being merely international and became transatlantic? Did the computer terminal on her desk not get switched on each morning with a hopeful heart expecting to find a missive from HIM? Did not the day only truly begin after midday when the five-hour time difference meant that HE was also in the office and could reply via the marvel of Digital Equipment Corporation's VAXMail? And did not HIS day lose something when she went home at the end of her day?

Yes, this author has been using e-mail for many years, far longer than most of the populace. At first, it was only possible to communicate with others having accounts on the same mainframe computer. Limited as this was it immediately became clear that this communication tool has many advantages: Unlike verbal communication, one has a handy transcript of who said what to whom. Detailed technical information is easily kept on hand for later use. One can inform a colleague of developments without interrupting their meeting or lunch or without repeatedly ringing their engaged telephone. A question can be asked of someone who is not available at the time. Likewise, the response can be given although the original requestor has since left the office. If asked for something, one has time to collect one's thoughts, look up a fact or make some trials before committing to an answer. The telephone remained the tool of choice when one required an immediate response, but judicious use of electronic mail was a great enabler for more efficient communication in the engineering environment in which this author worked in the early 1980s. Besides, what fun to be part of a technological elite!

The advantages increased as e-mail communication was expanded to networked mainframe computer systems. The same advantages as before, but spread across various sites of extensive or even international companies. Barriers such as time zones lost some of their power to divide workforces. Could things get any better than this?

And then inter-company communication became possible. Ah, the memory of one's first SMTP address for sending electronic mail to addressees outside one's own company. The address was a mile long, very awkward and not easily remembered. It might even have been embarrassing depending on your computer department's naming convention for its machines. This is all quite a long way from today's simple [email protected] or [email protected], but as exciting as one's first legally purchased drink, a girl's first brassiere, a couple's first kiss... And all probably equally unsatisfactory when compared with what was to come! (As an aside to her husband this author would like to say that it was too exciting, that she does have a life, such as it is when one is married (to the likes of him, no less!) and that at the time going back to work after having the baby constituted "getting out more," so there!)

But before e-mail became the easy-to-use tool everyone enjoys or suffers today, came the dark ages. That was the time when large companies decided to modernize, to embrace the new technological advances and to attempt to mechanize their employee communication. An awkward e-mail system, as graceful as drunken dinosaurs, was put in place. Everyone was forced to use it, regardless of whether they had easy access to a computer, had an idea how to switch on a computer or had the slightest interest in the messages sent. Such times are painful times. Change is not something that the average person embraces. The techno-nerds want something better; the technophobes want nothing to do with any of it.

In time however, one accepts change, sometimes forgetting that there ever existed a time before the change came into place. And this is where e-mail is today. Who in this forum can easily conjure up a picture of life before e-mail? The person who moaned at the very idea of e-mail as little as six years ago, will be the irate caller to the IT department when the company's e-mail system is down for an hour. People who didn't understand why their companies insisted on their having e-mail addresses now have e-mail addresses for each family member. Those who couldn't imagine with whom they might need to communicate via e-mail a few years ago regularly send e-mail jokes and snaps of the grandchildren to their parents today. And those who've used e-mail for many years generally forget the limited tool with which they worked 10 years earlier.

Hasn't e-mail become easy to use? All it takes is a few simple clicks, a bit of typing, and a drag and drop to attach a file -- any file! And being able to have primary and secondary and even blind addressees means that one's chef d'ouevres need not be limited to a small audience. The second request to the same colleague for the same information is sure to be copied to the colleague's manager. And when one is not quite certain whom to address with an issue, why not simply send it to everyone who possibly might be concerned, everyone who might know who ought to receive it plus a few of one's own colleagues, just for good measure? And once a person's name has been added to the reply list of an e-mail thread, who would dare remove it? Oh no, that would be rude! All of which means, that when one receives an e-mail the chances are rather good that the contents are of either limited or no interest at all for the recipient. When one receives a long e-mail or an e-mail made up of several replies, how much time should one give to perusing it before deleting it? What percentage of one's time should one spend on reading e-mails? Is it reasonable that when one asks one's colleague in the hallway about some request sent days ago, the colleague responds with "I haven't got to that yet?" Is it a sign of good corporate communication when managers say that they receive so many e-mails, that they only read the so-called hot ones, leaving those that are merely important by the wayside? What have we lost when a mail sent to several people makes each recipient feel that one of the other addressees will deal with it and that they are free to ignore it?

Of course the advantage to a company of sending general announcements, important information and encouraging notes from the CEO to the employees at large with no additional cost over sending it to just one employee is great. But as always, it behooves the company to discover the price of this so-called free e-mail usage. The cost of sending the e-mail may be lost in the overhead, but the cost of 1,000 or 25,000 or 80,000 or more employees each opening the e-mail, reading it and deleting it, is considerable. That's if the employees bother deleting it instead of keeping 80,000 copies of the CEO's weekly words of wisdom carefully filed away for further edification! Not to mention those who actually print such things! And would it not save an enormous amount of time, and therefore money, if these mass company mailings were better targeted? This author would be most pleased never to receive another e-mail about the terms and conditions offered to her colleagues in her company's primary location, terms which she is quite sure are far better than the ones she has locally, grumble, grumble!

And all this before even discussing the obvious time-wasting to oneself or to one's company when receiving large numbers of unsolicited e-mails (spam) or virus-infected e-mails. (This author believes that her high school's sex education teacher's advice should be taken when opening an e-mail that has as its subject "I love you," namely "only with someone you know well." Had this advice been taken when the "I love you" virus first came into companies and governments the world over, it would have had a far less devastating effect.)

There can be no doubt that e-mail is a marvelous thing. Or can there? Perhaps that should read e-mail was a marvelous thing. Or even that it could be again. This author believes that the proliferation of corporate e-mail in the last one or two years has taken a great tool and diminished it to the point where it is an irritant and something that stops communication rather than facilitates it. E-mail is here to stay. It has become a part of our corporate and technological culture and it can not be undone. It is more important that the potential of e-mail be realized rather than it be abused to the detriment of all.

Sylvia Lanz is an IT coordinator at Visteon.


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