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The Cure for E-Mail Overload – Stop Misusing It

Published
  • May 01 2003, 1:00am EDT

It may seem hard to believe, but there was once a time when e-mail was seen as a powerful boost to productivity. Workers welcomed the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with colleagues across the office or around the world, and information flowed as never before. Today, of course, this flow is more likely to inspire groans than applause. According to industry analysts, the average worker spends two to four hours each day going through an ever- refilling in-box, trying to sift a few grains of useful content from so many redundant, contradictory or irrelevant messages. Half the day is lost before work has even begun. How has this happened? How has a tool with such great promise come to be such a productivity sinkhole?

The problem is simple: misuse. Although e-mail is ideally suited for one-to-one communication between two individuals and for one-to-many applications such as announcements, directives and the centralized dissemination of information, it is poorly suited for the many-to-many communication on which most collaboration depends. Unfortunately, this is one of its most common uses.

The reliance on e- mail for collaboration is problematic on two levels. First, the e-mail system itself is taxed by a use it was never intended to support. Overlapping and proliferating e-mail threads crowd out other types of messages, while the often redundant attachments they carry account for 40 percent of network traffic and 85 percent of total e-mail server content in many companies.

Equally critical is the price these companies and their work teams pay for the lack of a more effective collaboration solution. Without workflow support, round-robin routing and approval can result in a single piece of work circulating endlessly, picking up incremental comments and revisions along the way without ever reaching a resolution. A question asked of an entire workgroup can be answered in a reply directed only to the sender, leaving everyone else out of the loop and robbing them of potentially useful information. Content sent for input to many people will come back with multiple sets of inconsistent and contradictory edits, bogging down the revision process and making version control nightmares inevitable. As work progresses, the lack of a centralized knowledge base makes information ephemeral and hard to locate; workers must search for answers in two places – in stored e-mails and on the desktop – and often find themselves asking or answering the same questions over and over again. All of this, of course, leads to still more messages in the in- box.

As the e-mail situation escalates, many companies have resigned themselves to what can seem like an intractable problem. However, with e-mail content growing at two to five times the rate of desktop content, it is only going to get worse – much worse. Fortunately, industrious software companies have been hard at work on a solution: shifting collaboration to an application of its own, thereby freeing e-mail for more appropriate uses.

Collaboration software comes as a natural extension of document management, a well-established category with a 15-year track record. Basic document management provides a company with a collective repository that holds one copy of each content element (such as documents, saved e-mails, images, presentations and spreadsheets) for workers to check out as needed and check back in afterwards. The location of any piece of content can be seen at a glance, and version control problems are a thing of the past. Next-generation document management extends this platform by adding collaboration, workflow, Internet connectivity and – yes – e-mail content, all in a single collaborative content management environment.

Collaborative content management gives workers accustomed to the pain of e-mail a wealth of new support and functionality to help them work together effectively. In addition to a unified content repository, these systems provide online workspaces where people can manage processes built on this content and access critical dates and milestones, discussion threads and meeting notes, all in the context of the work in progress. Workflow support makes it possible to automate routing, approval and other business processes, giving workers a more effective alternative to the round-robin routing that accounts for so much e-mail abuse.

Because ease of use is the order of the day – no worker will adopt a solution that is more difficult to use than the one it replaces – the best collaborative content management systems are intuitively integrated with the applications used to generate content. Items created in Microsoft Office or within e-mail can be included in the repository without introducing new or extra steps. Other high-end features include a flexible and easy-to-administer security model that allows authorized users outside the company to access certain content, but nothing they are not supposed to see. While systems that depend on a single physical repository located in one office can clog network traffic and produce unacceptable response times in remote offices, others are designed for maximum scalability across multiple offices and millions of content items to ensure long-term success.

By weaning workers from e-mail- based collaboration, collaborative content management workspaces greatly ease the burden on e-mail systems. Attachments no longer clog networks and fill up servers; instead, workers send each other Web links to a single copy stored in the repository (with the added benefit of better centralized control of critical business content). Workflow and business process automation are shifted from e-mail threads to online workspaces where they belong, leaving behind a comprehensive audit trail that lets you know everything that has been done with the work in progress. No longer atomized in e-mail stores across the company, vital business knowledge is captured and made available for searching and continued use, fostering information sharing and best practices among communities of practice and interest.

Collaborative content management will never replace e-mail, nor is it designed to. Instead, the new generation of these collaborative workspaces will free e-mail to do the work it was designed to do – communication between two people or from one to several – while giving teams a much better way to work together.

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