Feb. 11, 2012, 12:38 p.m.

The virtues of email

Recently the CEO of one of the largest IT companies decided that inter company email is to be banned. This triggered some memories I have regarding discussions with various business people I have met through the years regarding the usefulness of email in the corporate environment.

Many people I have spoken to supports the decision I mentioned in the introduction of this post. They believe that email is a huge distraction for people to work efficiently, as most email is either junk or not of such a nature that deems a response / action necessary. Those people usually recommend instant messaging or the telephone as alternatives.

I however believe IM (Instant Messaging) and the telephone are the worst evils - affecting one's performance much more adversely than email ever can. Why? Because people expect you to respond immediately when sending an IM or calling you. They expect you will stop what you were busy with and pick up the phone or respond to the IM bouncing up and down the dock. I have had people yell at me because I did not reply quickly enough on IM, even though I explained I was on the phone and busy on a remote computer session with a second client, they still insisted I should at least have acknowledged the IM message. That made me furious.

Now I know we all do not work in the same kind of industries so in some environments my method will not work. If people are to react immediately then the phone or IM or even walking over to your colleague are much better methods. Think about a 911 call centre, or a police station, hospital etc. But I am talking about IT firms here, so that does not count.

I believe email is the best solution to inter office communication, because most communications are not of a critical nature. Because of that, the real time based systems such as people walking in to your office, IM or the telephone are misfits. Email is inherently an asynchronous messaging system. That means it is based on a natural queue, new messages gets added to the end of the queue, old messages are at the top of the queue. Most mail clients have a fascinating little feature where you can flag a message. That is most probably the most effective way I have ever found of keeping track of things that I need to respond to. I can read an email - on my own time - assess its urgency, and either respond immediately if warranted, flag it for followup or ignore it. I have the freedom to chose how to deal with it, and when to deal with it. If I am in the middle of writing code I am not going to read new emails. They can pile up. Once I take a break I will review the emails and react accordingly to my availability.

IM and phone calls and people walking in to your office break this asynchronous process. You have to interrupt your work and react immediately, even if it is only to tell the person to wait or you will get back to them. Their expectation is that you will respond immediately. And that is horribly disruptive.

For me, email will be the main method of communicating with people and naturally queueing tasks for processing for a long time to come. Email by its nature is an archive, a record of communications. A phone call is not - unless you record it. But you cannot search it. An IM message can be recorded, but there is no neat relationship to the date of the conversation, or a topic etc. That makes finding something you typed really hard. And of course, if someone walks in and asks you something there is never a record of that anywhere.

Email provides a natural asynchronous queue for ad-hoc processing, flagging, and record keeping for archival and search purposes. Not sure why so many people do not see it this way. Maybe most people do not really think about things?