The social life of email at Enron – a new study

Probaby one of the few positive things to come out of the Enron scandle was that it gifted social scientists a data set of real corporate email that could be analysed for research purposes.

A recent study [PDF] used this data to look at ‘gossip’. Now hang on for a second before you jump to conclusions, lets define what we mean here. Anthropologists define gossip as:

“the absence of a third party from the conversation [and it] is fundamental to healthy societies—from small groups to large, formal organizations”

Bearing in mind the limitations of the data set (limited to one company) and potiential data quality issues, one of the interesting findings was about who was gossiping with whom:

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The authors observe that:

“gossip is present in both personal and business email and across all sections of the hierarchy, which demonstrates its all-pervasive nature in organizations. Next, we showed that the hierarchical position of an employee affects his gossip behavior, both in terms of his frequency of gossip and the audience with whom he gossips. Our re- sults indicate that people are most likely to gossip with their peers. 

They also note:

“frequent dyadic email interactions do not show an increase in gossip email. This fact raises more questions than answers. It might be the case that social contact between two people in an organization is not well captured by email exchanges; there may be other channels of communication.”

I suppose that what’s interesting about this research is to reflect on the fear that enterprise social software will simply provide a platform for employees to waste time, with idle chatter. However, organisations are fundamentally more complex than we often treat them. Looking at Kai’s research into how enterprise social networks (in this case, Yammer) are used in large companies we see patterns that appear to exclude gossip (as defined above).

My immediate thoughts are:

  • People in organisations will use technology tools to gossip if they provide the (perceived*) means for small group interaction – email currently fills this role very well, although private messaging or private groups in social platforms can provide the same capability.
  • The collaboration space within enterprise social platforms are typically open be default, so this is more likely to create outcomes that are anti-gossip because of the transparency. I would be interested to see if they actively reduce gossip or if it is simply offloaded to other channels or places.
  • Traditional intranets and information management tools fail to meet the human needs for gossip in organisations – the side effect is a huge cognitive dissonance between what these systems tell them and what gossip says.
  • People don’t need technology to gossip. They will always find otherways to gossip – at meetings, over lunch or standing in line for coffee.

*As the release of the Enron data set shows, corporate email isn’t really private.

Hat tip to The Atlantic.

Trying to fix how people use email can backfire

Some attempts to limit email haven’t gone as planned. One client of Christina Randle, a workplace productivity expert with the Effectiveness Edge in Austin, tried remedying employees’ email overload by banning staff from sending messages on Fridays. It backfired. Employees just stored outbound messages and sent them all Monday morning. “Instead of getting 100 messages on Friday, [people] got 200 in their inbox on Monday morning,” she says.

If you want to fix email in the workplace, you’ve got to treat it as a systemic problem.

We need a smarter inbox for the social media era

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Alan Lepofsky shared how he uses email to manage the external and internal social media firehouse by creating a rudimentary snapshot view of updates received by email from these systems. Lepofsky says:

So am I interested in getting rid of email? Absolutely not. It’s one of the most important tools I use everyday.

This sounds great in theory, but fundamentally the inbox as it currently functions isn’t fit for purpose for the social media era. We do need an inbox of some sort, but it should be smarter and be served by smarter messaging. Just as most users won’t use RSS, they won’t spend time creating complex rules, filters and labels. And why should they when we could design something better?

Personally, I look at the way most modern email apps (particularly Gmail) deal with meeting invites as a pointer to what a smarter social media ready inbox could look like. Your inbox shouldn’t just receive the notification from a social media tool and dump it in your inbox, it should process it in context of all the other notifications received. This means it would know what notifications you have read, what notifications were related to each other and what period of time they are from. It would also recognise the difference between a notification and a specific message.

You should be able to access a dashboard (like the way your calendar rolls up appointments) and even receive a regular aggregated summary. It should know when you last checked your social media inbox or if you’ve been away (when you set your out of office).

Of course it should still be backwards compatible with POE (Plain Old Email) and even RSS. I reckon some kind of microformat would do the job.

But right now, my inbox is just a bucket for notifications. Its not a useful tool for managing information overload, but it could be.

What do you think?

Image credit: The Meters. CC BY-NC-ND

Is there a future for email?

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French company, Atos, cause a stir recently by repeating again its intention to ban internal email from 2014 that was announced earlier in the year. There has been a fair bit of misunderstanding on the Web about this so I suggest you read this BBC interview with ATOS CEO, Thierry Breton, that explains his thinking behind this strategy.

Most of the critical responses to this idea have expressed an incredulous attitude towards the idea of eliminating what most people consider to be a critical business tool (remember the reaction to the BlackBerry outage a few months ago?). In some respects, many of the arguments against banning email are reasonable:

  • Can you ban email if your customers and clients are using it? (to be fair to ATOS, they aren’t planning on banning external email).
  • Rather than banning email, users just need to manage their inboxes better.

However, on balance I think there is good reason for aiming to effectively ban email. But rather than outlawing it, we need to reinvent how we utilise email as a software protocol and also the ageing paradigm of the inbox, particularly where the assumed effectiveness is built on false assumptions around utility and information ownership. At a software level, email offers a number of important features – such as:

  • Interoperability and extendability.
  • It can work offline (although this is becoming less important).
  • For the sender, it costs no more to send messages to 1 or many people where ever they are.
  • Both sender and receivers can store and organise copies of messages exchanged independently of each other.
  • Email addresses act a simple proxies for identification.
  • Email accounts can be created for individuals, groups and also non-human systems.

These features provide a great deal of utility, although we can look at each feature and find many negatives too – for example:

  • Email standards and extensions aren’t implemented homogeneously, so users may have problems reading or processing an email.
  • When you go online after an extended absence, your inbox is flooded with new messages.
  • People send many messages that for the receiver are just transient or ambient information – but your inbox treats them as all the same.
  • The independent nature of email messages contributed to fragmentation of the information chain, making it hard to know who knows what and people who should know made end up getting left out of the loop.
  • An email address doesn’t actually tell you anything about the user, who they are or why you should trust that identity.
  • High volumes of automatically generated notification emails from non-human systems contribute to information overload.

In summary, we can say that email works as a pragmatic solution, but not without creating numerous problems for individual users and organisations a like. As a result there many solutions out there that help us to deal with everything from email processing to email data management. Some solutions are technical in nature, like help desk ticketing software or records management systems, but others focus on the user as problem and attempt to fix individual behaviours. But ultimately none offer a way of making email the perfect tool and it will take a leap to improve how we communicate and collaborate.

So, what is stopping us taking this leap? Thinking about this from a social experience design perspective, I think there are four key issues that need to be addressed to create something better than the email we use today:

  1. Move to open work as the default. Email provides users with a simple system of directing messages at people – this falls into a mental information sharing model of open only by exception that is the default in most organisations, but it is also supported by a false perception that email is owned by the sender and private if we restrict the names included on the To, CC and BCC lists. Of course, this doesn’t mean we stop supporting some private communication entirely!
  2. Everything is Miscellaneous. Centrally designed information systems that enforce fixed, common models for organising information and work process don’t work. These were designed with good intentions, but they aren’t effective and only encourage the use of personal information stores.
  3. Collaborate by staying apart. We need the same ease of interoperability between different social business software platforms that email offers – I shouldn’t be forced to use your system, when I have my own, and neither should you.
  4. Who are you? We need to shift from email addresses as identifiers towards a model where organisations can offer a better user identifier and profile that will enable messaging to take place through the right channel or system.

Its entirely possible that email protocols will continue to play a role in this new environment, but I think it will also depend on other Web 2.0 protocols like Activity Streams, Open Social, and ATOM. This actually hints that the death of email will come incrementally, if we wait for the technology to rise up and present better alternatives. In practice, the tide of data created by other social business software tools will make the traditional email inbox an unsustainable proposition.

The water is rising slowly right now, but don’t doubt that the inbox will need to be reinvented at some point – the question is really when and how, not if.

BTW if you found this interesting, you might enjoy this presentation, Architected for Collaboration.

Image credit: Inbox Art CC BY-SA

Email, the lonely medium

Lee Bryant is co-founder of Headshift, the world’s biggest social business consultancy. He believes email’s dominance over business communications is coming to an end.

“When email was first developed it was an excellent point-to-point communication tool when nothing else existed,” says Mr Bryant.

“I think we’ve reached the stage where email as means of communicating is overloaded. I think we will see what happens on email today transitioning towards various kinds of both internal and consumer facing social tools.”

These are “flow-based” tools such as wikis, micro-blogging and internal social networks, according to Mr Bryant.

“I think fundamentally one of the biggest problems is that social tools communicate slightly more in the open, they create ambient knowledge and ambient awareness for others who are not even in the conversation,” says Mr Bryant.

“Email doesn’t do that, it’s quite a lonely medium.

Lee isn’t saying email (or email like) communication is dead, but that it is being pushed out of the way by more appropriate styles of open and flow-based communication tools.

Nathaniel Borenstein, co-creator of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) protocol, was also interviewed for this article – I do agree with his comment that the universal addressing that modern email support is a good thing, but that this is “not a definition of email.”

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have true universal addressing across social tools (even with OpenID, I’m sure most users will have identified themselves somewhere via an email account) and email continues to play a role as a personal identifier for using social tools. Similarly, into systems like CoachSurfing, use a physical snail-mail postcard as part of their user verification system.

Google Plus – email re-imagined?

In the last few weeks a lot has been written about whether Google Plus is the ultimate killer social networking site of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or several others, you name it. Perhaps we have seen far too many articles and blog posts on the topic and while I do think it’s just a bit too early to make such kind of statements, even if Google Plus has just reached over 25 million users already. I still think it’s a bit too early to be announcing the painful death of each of those social networking environments. Let’s not forget how long it took both Facebook and Twitter to become mainstream and reach that tipping point of no return, of rampant progress, of gaining enough relevance and importance to stick around for a while, in short, of having enough global impact that almost everyone has heard, or knows about them. G+ still needs to reach that level. I do know though it will reach it eventually, perhaps even sooner than anyone else!, but what I am rather surprised about is the fact that hardly anyone has talked or blogged about the fact that Plus does present a real threat to the king of communications, collaboration and knowledge sharing: email!

For me, one the interesting things I’ve found about the Google+ experience to date is how much it resonated with my experience of enterprise microblogging platforms.

Now, Google got things right with Gmail (right now, it still is IMHO the best email app available and I love my ninjas), but stumbled with Wave. Google+ may well end up being the evolution of Gmail into email being re-imagined, perhaps later combined with the elements of Wave that did work (and also Open Social). But for that happen, Google+ will need to support a seamless, minimum level of compatibility with current email systems and other social tools.

Being open could be a recipe for success over the longer term, rather than trying to make Google+ the single social network. The unstated goal should also be to retire Gmail in its current form (although I’d like to keep the ninjas!). And that’s where I see the enterprise going too – who will be first?

The problem with email is everyone else

There is no single cure for email overload and Inbox Zero doesn’t claim to perform miracles. At the end of the day it’s a system, and it’s nothing without your own personal input. It might work for you and it might not. It’s important to remember that productivity systems are subjective beasts and that can be their ultimate downfall or the reason for their success.

What works for you won’t necessarily work for me. And for that reason you can’t say wholeheartedly that Inbox Zero works or it doesn’t. That’s just like saying that having cornflakes for breakfast doesn’t work. It’s simply a matter of personal preference or taste.

I’ve always been critical about email ‘diets’, although I view more contemporary efforts by Luis and Geoff to eliminate email with great interest.

Years ago I recommended the following:

  • Where possible, eliminate the root cause of the problem. 
  • Take control of your own inbox by managing it appropriately. 
  • Lead by example and practice better e-mail etiquette and style.

At the root of this advice is that email is a communication tool that is often misappropriated as a collaboration tool. You can keep trying to fix your own inbox, but the problem is actually with everyone else using email.

The good news is that I hear more and more frequently how social business tools in the workplace do help to reduce email overload. We really have moved beyond marketing rhetoric.

I can even see it in my own work practices too – I use a combination of email (yes, its still there!), wiki, microblogging (enterprise microblogging and Twitter) and instant messaging. Of course, its the wiki and microblogging that make the critical difference, as they create a open plan workspace online where everyone can work out loud.

However, the root causes I identified originally still stand. Working out loud works best when:

  • Everyone is working out loud (or at least ‘in the room’). 
  • People know why and understand how to work out loud. 
  • Users are able to control how they consume the online open plan space.

Part of the reason for this is that its not simply about shifting communication that takes place in email to other channels. That would simply shift the location of the problem. Instead, we use different tools in the flow to deal with transient, situational and ambient communication and collaboration in different situations. See my Architected for Collaboration presentation for more on this.

Overall, this is a very different approach to the problem from the simplistic ‘occupational spam‘ mentality. We eliminate the root cause of email overload, not the individual messages.

On a strictly personal front, I’ve noticed that the vast majority of personal email I receive these days comes in the form of notifications from other public social tools, subscriptions and automatic notifications (like my bank). However, the dynamic of personal use is very different from the workplace. In the workplace, we have the advantage of being able to choose the commons spaces where we will work out loud (assuming you are proactive about it).