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pixel.gif (807 bytes) Email - boon or burden?
IF YOU BELIEVE the statistics we’re all at it. By 2001, half the population of the US will be doing it more than 500 million times a day1. The Queen beat all but a handful of academics to it, by doing it for the first time in 1976. It is email. You only need to walk near a computer and someone will send you one. And then another. And then, on average, about 45 each day2.

St the risk of adding to the overload, let’s get our facts straight. Three quarters of all email is of no practical use. Up to half of it is deleted without being read3. And contributing to this is the fact that less than half of us receive any training in electronic communications - and far less are taught how to reduce the email overload4.

Why are we doing it?
There’s at least three good reasons why we’re doing it:

  • It’s fast and it’s cheap: Recent research5 draws this out conclusively. Here’s what it takes to send a 42 page document from New York to Tokyo:
US$ Time
Airmail 7.4 5 days
Courier 26.25 24 hrs
Fax 28.83 31 mins
Internet email 0.1 2 mins
  • It keeps us in touch: With email we can stay in the loop whether we’re at our desks, working from home, on client premises, in our hotel room or on the move. Now we don’t need to be connected to our organisation’s local area network, we can work with a laptop and a dial-up connection, a palmtop or even a mobile phone.
  • It saves on the trees: In theory at least, more electronic communication means less paper. Hopefully you don’t print out all your emails, you save them to disk or delete them. And in doing so, you don’t lose out on the audit trail - electronic storage provides a perfectly adequate record and, with proper backups, is a lot safer.

But at what risk?
When we embrace electronic communications, we do so at our peril:

  • You may be misunderstood: Email is not a subtle medium and you may not come across quite as you intended. It’s all too easy to send ‘flames’ (inflammatory or critical messages) in the heat of the moment and to have deep regrets the morning after. In a survey of employees in the City of London6, 81% of respondents felt that email was used when personal communication would be more effective.
  • You lose control of your time: Some employees report becoming slaves to email, with messages arriving at all times of day and night, giving the impression that they are expected to be available 24 hours a day.
  • You never know who might read that message: In 1997, a major financial company was forced to pay 450,000 to a rival, after libelling them in emails that had been sent internally. The rival obtained a court order to read the messages after hearing about them. And a recent survey on the abuse of email7 turned up one employee who lost her job after forwarding a client’s email to a colleague, with an insult added at the top. After inadvertently hitting the reply button, the employee not only lost her job, the company lost the client.
  • Spam, spam and more spam: Unsolicited, unwanted emails are called ‘spam’ and mostly they’re about as likeable as all that junk mail that arrives through your letterbox. At first you may believe all those claims for how you can make money, lose weight and generally enrich your life. You soon catch on. You can have too much spam.

So how does it work?
Email is like conventional mail but without the postman. When you press ‘send’, it’s like shoving the letter in the post box (although, with a dial-up connection, your mail tends to lay in the out tray for a while before being posted in bulk). At the post office (actually your mail server), they look at the address and determine which other post office to forward the message on to. And rather than using a van, the railway or a plane, they use your company’s network or the Internet to get the message there. At its destination, the message waits in the recipient’s mailbox until such time as they stop by and collect it - I told you there was no postman - although that’s usually just a question of clicking on the ‘receive’ button.

So the mechanics are simple. Far too simple. Much harder is making this technology work for us. I’ve trawled round the Internet - so you don’t have to! - to see how others have solved the problem. And here’s what I found, the four steps to email mastery:

  1. Know when to use email
  2. Be a responsible email user
  3. Compose your messages with care
  4. Minimise the e-load

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                                                     Fastrak Consulting Ltd, 1999. All rights reserved.                                  Last revised 3/5/99