Email – Boon or Bane?
What can be wrong with a technology that lets you do in seconds what used to take days? What downside can there be with a technology that lets you deliver written communications around the world in seconds, without having to pay postage?
If you answered, “SPAM, junk email, or the spread of viruses, that’s what,” you are right. But, those are the obvious email problems that are well known, well publicized, and have plenty of talent dedicated to their eradication and/or control. The real insidious downside to email is the negative impact it has on daily business productivity. E-mail Inboxes with hundreds of email messages are not manageable; staff members using their Inbox as a pseudo-ToDo list are not efficient; and firms that have tens of thousands of email messages stored in non-shared folders that cannot be effectively searched waste valuable time locating information that should be easily accessible to them. The sheer amount of email that is received daily, without an effective method to deal with it, can simply be overwhelming.
The Volume is Here to Stay
In the article, E-mail: Does it simplify lawyers’ lives or just increase the stress? (California Bar Journal, May 2001),1 the director of the State Bar’s stress management program notes that participants in the program “now cite today’s constant stream of email as a source of stress.” Among the problems that lawyers face are “greater client expectations, … and, some say, an onslaught of electronic messages 24 hours a day, on top of their telephone voicemail, cell phones and pagers.” As the article notes, “[o]n an average day last year , North Americans sent 6.1 billion email messages, … [and] [t]hat number will jump to 18 billion emails a day by the year 2005 … and researchers expect that more than half of those emails will involve business, not personal, matters.” This article was written 14 years ago in 2001. Recent statistics from 2013 show that 100 billion business emails were sent each day, and that the rate will continue to grow around 7-8% per year.2 A McKinsey study found that on average, workers in 2012 spent over 28% of their work life reading and answering email.3 With the amount of email that we will continue to get in the future, business life will become more stressful because of it unless you find a way to deal with it.
What’s the Cause of the Stress?
The main cause of this stress is the use of email in a manner that was not anticipated when it was designed. In addition to being a medium for quick communication, email has evolved (or perhaps, devolved?) into a task management system, document delivery and collaboration system, and an information repository. In addition to quick communications, your Inbox is now used as your pseudo-ToDo list, a way to pass documents around the office, and the place where you can go to locate critical information. The problem is that most email programs do not do a very good job with these additional tasks, and the numerous emails you get cause you to miss important communications, prioritize your work poorly, and waste time searching for critical information that should be easily available to you.
Why is it that you and most other attorneys have full Inboxes? If email was used simply for communications, email messages would be read and quickly disposed of. Instead, much of the email you receive requires that you take additional action, or needs to be kept for future reference. Your Inbox fills up because most traditional email programs don’t give you the tools you need to handle these tasks. Your full Inbox then causes your stress level to rise, and your efficiency to drop. This misuse of email was first explored in detail in Email overload: exploring personal information management of email, a detailed analysis of the use and misuse of email by Whittaker and Sidner of Lotus Development Corporation.4 In discussing how email needed to be redesigned, the authors stated:
Although email was originally designed for asynchronous communication, the application is actually being used for multiple functions. Email therefore needs to be redesigned to support filing and task management as well as asynchronous communications. Our analysis of different user’s strategies shows that [users] experience problems with both filing and task management. These problems lead to backlogs of unanswered messages and “lost” information in archives.
A decade later in 2006, Microsoft researchers revisited Whitaker and Sidner’s paper and found that although the amount of email had increased ten-fold, and much research and effort had been expended in an attempt to the alleviate the problem, very little had changed.5 In two articles, knowledge management expert Matt Moore researched and reported on the email landscape as it then existed in 2012. His findings were that fifteen years after Whittaker and Sidner first identified the problems inherent in email, almost all the relevant research uniformly agreed that little had changed. The problem was still identified as “sheer overload” and that even though there were serious advancement with technological solutions, most of the problems will continue to exist in the short term.6 7 Further, the research indicated there were divergent opinions on external and internal email. Curbing external email is difficult and often not an option as email is frequently the only and best way to communicate with those outside the organization. Internal email, on the other hand, was more susceptible to organizational control and change by:
- Better training on and utilization of email tools;
- Shifting to other collaboration tools that enable intra-firm communication to be performed more efficiently than using email; and
- Adjusting the firm culture to reduce email by developing protocols around email decision-making (e.g., less CYA email through the overutilization of the “Reply All” function, and FYI emails).
So, What Can Lawyers and Law Firms Do?
As will be discussed in Part 2 of the series, there are plenty of common sense changes that can be made that will help lawyers and staff understand how to use email more effectively and efficiently, and change the email culture of the firm. And, fortunately, there are many options for document and email management systems (DMS/EMS) and legal practice management systems (LPMS) for law firms that make it easier to file your email information in a centrally located repository, where it can be easily searched and located, and lets you process the action required by the email with a variety of different tools.
- http://archive.calbar.ca.gov/calbar/2cbj/01may/page1-2.htm ↩
- http://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Email-Statistics-Report-2013-2017-Executive-Summary.pdf ↩
- http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/the_social_economy ↩
- http://www.sigchi.org/chi96/proceedings/papers/Whittaker/sw_txt.htm ↩
- http://msr-waypoint.com/pubs/69394/p309-fisher.pdf ↩
- http://innotecture.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/olc-feb-2012_mmoore_email-pt-1.pdf. Moore M. “What Do We Do About Email? Part 1: User Research” (2012) 26 OLC 4. Thomson Reuters ↩
- http://innotecture.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/olc-april-2012_mmoore_email-pt-2-article.pdf. Moore M. “What Do We Do About Email? Part 2” (2012) 26 OLC 55. Thomson Reuters ↩