In its 1 May 2015 edition, Fortune magazine featured an article by Leena Rao about the perils of email in modern enterprise. Apparently, we now spend one third of our work time managing emails.
It was yet another voice targeting emails as a time waster and business efficiency damper, suggesting that we have a serious problem on our hands. The tech world, we’re told, currently pursue a solution.
But, like all things, it’s wise not to accept popular opinion as truth without deeper reflection. In my assessment, Leena based her article on the flawed assumption that the content in office emails has no value.
Let me suggest that the debate misses the point by focusing on the communication media rather than the content of the communications.
It may not be obvious, but data does not equal information. In 1948, Claude Shannon explained the difference between the two when he introduced the concept of information entropy.
Data = what has been transmitted to you.
Information = the portion of the transmitted content that you don’t yet know.
For example, if you receive 1,000 units of data, the value of the information will be somewhere between 0 and 1,000 depending on what you knew prior to receiving the communication.
Only the information component contained in the message has value, all other data could’ve been omitted and it wouldn’t have mattered to you (other than saving you time).
Armed with this insight, it becomes obvious that email doesn’t hold the monopoly on carrying useless data – it comes to us from all kinds of sources: newspapers, radio, television and conversations.
The medium is essentially irrelevant and can’t be blamed for communication inefficiency. The whole issue comes down to the ratio of information versus data.
Recognising that an effective way to increase communication efficiency starts with the separation of useful and useless data, here’s a few techniques that could help.
Internal meetings and conversations
Create a process that enables people to respectfully communicate that the message has been received or is already known, and that further conversation would be just data. This can be as simple as raising a card or a verbal cue. I’ve seen the concept of a ‘green card’ used in a meeting and it does help.
Reading text communications
Make a conscious effort to separate information from the other data. For example, when reading a book or article, highlight the pieces of text that you don’t know and want to remember. In later review, all you have to do is re-read the useful content. I’ve heard this concept referred to as ‘Shannon Reading’.
The notorious email
Like any other communication channel, email requires filtration and common sense. Avoid CCs. If anyone other than the primary recipient needs to know about the information, forward it to them and clearly explain why. Otherwise, include them in the addressee list. Don’t tolerate ‘naked’ CCs, just for the sake of keeping someone ‘informed’.
When dealing with your inbox, be ruthless. Bin anything that has no information value. File communications that could be used for future reference such as bank statements and only act on what’s important: clients, orders, invoices, etc.
If you can’t handle the volume, get assistance, but never complain about being overwhelmed by incoming communications. The worst thing in business is sitting around waiting for the phone to ring (or emails to arrive…). Personally, I would rather be flooded with valuable incoming messages and then worry about the best way to handle them.
Try not to subscribe to email feeds unless they have crucial importance to you. The bulk of the noise in your inbox usually comes from broadcast sources that you can turn off. Ask yourself: how many email newsletters do you subscribe to that you never read? Avoid this, and if you’re already subscribed, unsubscribe from the ones that don’t matter today.
Business comes down to people communicating with people. In my experience, ensuring that you manage your incoming communications based on their informational value and respect other people’s time by only communicating information pays dividends in the long run.
Don’t worry about the media: today’s ‘email menace’ will be replaced with something else some day and the problem will remain the same – how to distil what makes sense from the ocean of fluff.