The Thousand Faces of Email – 1. Email as a Documentation System

Posted on July 4, 2013 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

Email: the beast with a thousand faces


Believe it or not, when email was invented back in the sixties it was with a clear goal in mind: to allow people to mail “letters” – written communications – electronically. It was a one to one messaging system. Those were the days…

Since then, email has assumed so many roles that its original purpose is almost secondary. Like a mythical shape-shifting beast, it has morphed into countless usage models, some useful and desirable, others harmful and even criminal. Even the basic paradigm of email – that of asynchronous, persistent message exchange – has been modified, often to our detriment.

In this series of posts I want to examine some of the manifold uses of email in today’s work environment, with special attention to their productivity impact.

Using email to document one’s work

After delivering a lecture on information overload at a small hi-tech company one of the attendees came to me and explained that one of the reasons for the overload in the company is that people use email to create a written record of whatever is happening. This wasn’t a matter of CYA and paper trails (we’ll cover those in a future post); the guy simply meant they create an email to keep notes, so they can later refer to them. The purpose of these mails was to archive, not to communicate.

Of course, stored mail messages are used as an archive in many cases, notably when litigation drives the process of “discovery”, with opposing lawyers digging through a company’s mail stores to figure out what has been going on. But that’s done after the fact, and is a byproduct of the mail’s primary use for communication, not the main purpose. The engineer I was talking to was referring to use of email as an archive tool up front, as a primary function.

So, is it a good idea to use email this way?

Probably not.

Some lawyers, of course, will say absolutely not, since they’d rather nobody archived anything that might be discovered and do harm later. I have my issue with that – I object to companies imposing amnesia on their workforce, so I’d rather they hired and nurtured responsible employees in the first place and let them keep the information for future use.

Still, I agree that email is not an optimal archiving method. By itself it’s almost useless, because finding things is hard; but a good desktop search tool can solve that for you. However, there are far better means of recording information – even a word processor allows you better formatting to make the information legible, and depending on your style you may find tools like Microsoft OneNote even better.

As for recording in a team, which is what the engineer was referring to, here they were indiscriminately confusing the functions of recording, long term storage, shared access control and retrieval. The information would get written down and multiple copies sent to the team members, though some would not even need to read it at the time; members would store it locally (or not) as they wished, and could access it later if they remembered where they’d stored it. This reeks of redundancy and lack of control.

The better solution for a team would of course be to store the information in a shared repository – SharePoint, a Wiki, any of the countless tools available out there for team collaboration. That way, the information has a single master copy, can be edited and versioned, can have proper access control, and is persistent in the long run.

And of course, there would be less email hitting their inboxes!

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons