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Is electronic mail always the right tool?

Back when I first started in my career (oh dear, this is going to show how ‘long in the tooth’ I am!), the only means of written communication available was the typed letter or internal memorandum.

It’s hard to believe, I know, but if you wanted to send a message to a group of staff, you dictated your message into a dictaphone and a typist transcribed it to paper for you. Then, you put together your distribution list, hoping you hadn’t missed anybody out, and gave your list and the memo to the office junior. He or she then made lots of copies, and then walked around the office, dropping a copy of your memo into the inbox of everybody on your distribution list.

Mission accomplished!! If you were lucky, another piece of correspondence didn’t get dropped on top of your precious memo, and the recipients actually got to read it. With a little more luck, you hadn’t forgotten to leave anyone important off your distribution list and everybody who was supposed to get the memo actually got it. If you were really, really lucky, some of the recipients even filed it so they could refer to it again in the future.

For obvious reasons, this wasn’t a very efficient method of communicating within an organisation, and certainly was not very effective at sharing corporate knowledge. You see, it had all sorts of other limitations too:

  • For those industrious souls who actually kept your memo so they could refer to it later, you had a version management issue. If the information was updated, you had to go through the whole process again, except THIS time you had to make sure that all the old versions were destroyed so the information could be updated. Of course, that was assuming that they had filed the old version in such a way that they could actually find it again;
  • You had a problem when you forgot to include somebody on your distribution list too – the catchphrase “oh, I never got that memo” would ring out around the office like church bells at Easter. It was obvious how poorly the system worked when a memo announcing ‘Hawaiian shirt day’ would see 90% of the staff still turning up in suits;
  • When somebody new started in the organisation, they typically started with a clean desk. So, one of the first things that a new starter had to do on day one, was to somehow get a copy of all the recent memos sent to other staff so they could get up to speed with the ‘goings-on’ around the organisation.

But the world is different now. Paper-based internal memorandums are gone. In their place, we have electronic mail. Email is just so more efficient isn’t it? In less than a minute, we can type our own memo, address it, and have it sitting waiting to be read in the inbox of everybody we send it to. All the problems that the old paper-based memo system had are wiped away in a single stroke of the keyboard!!

… or are they??

You see, one of the biggest limiting factors of the paper-based memo system (apart from the time required to copy and distribute it) was that it was reliant on the sender to make the decision who the best people to receive it were.

If you, as a potential recipient, were interested in the information contained in the memo, but the sender wasn’t aware of this, then you never got it. Worse, if you were in a distant location, separated from the rest of the organisation, you would also more than likely never know the memo, and the information on it, ever even existed. The paper-based system therefore resulted in the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ when it came to access to information.

The problem is that using email doesn’t solve this. In fact, because it is so easy to create and send an email, then the volume of messages being delivered into large numbers of inboxes (let’s call them “information silos”) is much greater than the days of paper-based communications.

Email doesn’t solve that problem, and it doesn’t solve the problems related to paper-based systems that I talked about earlier either, i.e.

  • Version management continues to be an issue. If you send some information, or a template file, or anything via email, and it needs updating, you have to somehow find all the old versions of it around the organisation, and put in place a process to update them.
  • With email, it is still the sender who decides who is to receive the information. In other words, the distribution of information is reliant on the sender being aware of every person in the organisation who can use the information and addressing it to them, rather than the content of the information dictating its distribution.
  • Information in email inboxes gets lost, because it is usually poorly filed and cross-referenced (if at all). Further, new employees starting in the organisation very rarely start with a full inbox containing everything they need to know that has previously been delivered by email.

Email is great for one-to-one communications that have a short information life-span of only a few days. For anything else, there are far more effective tools available to us.

Getting out of the habit of using email for all communications requires a culture shift on the part of any organisation, but the dividends are well worth it.

In this information age, successful companies are those that can leverage the vast amounts of information available within the organisation to their advantage. This requires making the information available in a central repository so it is available for all members of the organisation to benefit from it. Using this method, the creator of the content is removed from having to determine who should receive it. Instead, the recipient can use the system to register their interest so it notifies them based on the content being created (newsletter subscription services for example).

Microsoft SharePoint has some great solutions to this problem … discussion forums with threaded content, centralised document storage systems with full workflow-enabled approval cycles, interest subscription facilities, search features…

It requires a change in thinking to post something in a central repository rather than just email it, but imagine the possibilities if everything ever created by an organisation was searchable, available in one place, and every time some new information on a subject you were interested in was posted, you were automatically notified about it, without the creator having to know you were even interested in it.

Hmm … automated notifications of new content that leads the user to a central repository for the information? Now THAT’s what email should be being used for!

Posted by: Mark Waller | 29 August 2007

Tags: email, communication, memo

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