E-mail me what you want

On a good day, I get 25 or 30 e-mails that require my immediate response. On a bad day, I get 65 or 70. I seem to be having more bad days lately. How about you? The infuriating thing about 99.99 per cent of my e-mail is that none of it has been prioritised in any meaningful way. Instead, the numerous messages all look depressingly similar (except, of course, the spam from the digijerks who mask their identities behind alphanumeric slop instead of real E-names and addresses). And yes, I do what limited filtering my software permits.

The real problem is that I haven't a clue what most people expect from their E-missives. Do they just want to tell me something? Do they want me to respond? Do they want me to do something? And what about the when? This very minute? Does it have to be today? Tomorrow? Or maybe when I finally get around to it?

There is an obvious solution to this problem: we could insist that people appropriately label their E-mail. We could design headers that require E-mailers to specify precisely what kind of message they are sending. Is it informational? Does it require a response? A behaviour? Does it need to be forwarded to other parties? Archived? Swiftly deleted after reading?

That isn't to suggest that the typical e-mail header should be longer than the typical e-mail itself. But challenging people to really think about how the messages they send should be received by their intended recipients is hardly a bad thing.

Indeed, in an era when knowledge workers ultimately can expect to process well over 100 e-mails per day, that challenge rapidly assumes a greater sense of urgency.

Part of me wishes that my initial response to a query from someone I don't know would automatically generate a form response asking the sender to prioritise the message sent. Would that be offensive? Or would that be professional?

Your answer reveals a lot about your personal and professional values. My answer should be obvious.

American Express is one company where certain departments (notably IS) have the obligation to describe the e-mail they send. Reportedly, that discipline yields positive returns. But one has to ask why so very few organisations take the time and effort to think about how to better leverage their existing e-mail infrastructures in a way that respects the time constraints of the individuals who use them.

In an earlier column, I observed that hardly any companies intelligently track their e-mail flow or do traffic analysis to help see how e-mail patterns intersect with value creation.

Now, I have to wonder when more organisations will offer their people tools that will help them manage their e-mail interactions in a more effective and more efficient manner. I think IS needs to lead such initiatives if it has any hope of becoming seen as more than the digital plumber of the network enterprise.

Then again, I'm awfully fond of another solution to the e-mail conundrum: insist that all e-mail sent have a deletion date attached. Insist that half the messages must disappear within 24 hours.

Well, it's just a thought - but I like it. Just don't send me e-mail about it.

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Michael Schrage

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