The Trouble with Email in the DoD
At the moment, I am reading a book recommended to me by a user called A World Without Email by Cal Newport. If you are looking for a more complete, smartly academic perspective, I highly recommend this book. It is well researched and cited while being a painless read for nonfiction. In previous articles, we discussed the case for a chat tool in the DoD. Spoiler alert, Mr. Newport does not necessarily advocate that readily available chat tools like Mattermost are much of an improvement in the lives of people.
In the book, he further dives into some of the potential behaviors in the modern workplace to displace some of the impacts of email overload. Some companies experiment with no-email Fridays, some with bookended use of email at the start and end of the day. Some go as far as pushing for a hard deletion of email with a response to the customer to resend the email when the employee returns from leave. All of these tricks and tips can be effective. As can management of email using complex filtering techniques. Even that effort is a job in itself. The core question for me is, why are users not pushing harder for changes in expectations? Other than the natural inclination to please and respond rapidly, is there a strong enough net gain to reinforce the behaviors?
Obnoxious, broad chatter.
Probably the most common issue with email since its generation is that in asynchronous communication, we are able to broadcast emails to large to: and cc: lines with a few keystrokes. This often is a consequence of a desire to be ‘inclusive’ in the communication and avoid faux pas where someone was inadvertently left off the notification. This person would potentially claim to be ill informed, or even worse, accuse the writer of purposeful exclusion. As a result, in the DoD, messages often have hundreds of people copied for ‘awareness’.
This awareness requirement results in what I would call an opportunity for runaway email chains. This is not unique to the government. As someone, who much like senior leaders in the government, grew up with email — this has been a fact of life for as long as I can remember. Yet, the past two decades have not demonstrated a sufficient method to encourage open communication while discouraging annoying reply all messages like “thanks”, or “you replied all”. Perhaps there are those of you out there that engage in complex email inbox setups and have filters for responses that contain “thanks” or other keywords that are common in these webs of wasteful, broad communication. Most of us, however, do not interface with systems at that level of advanced configuration on our own.
Furthering the battle over the inbox are three main competing sources. No, this is not spam. We have found ways to address spam somewhat effectively — though, I encourage you to still be skeptical about links in emails and princes in Africa sending you large sums of money. Sales and marketing deserves the lion’s share of the blame for broad communication overload. The two other factors are broad, unending communications and the information overload emailer (think someone who needs to append a TL;DR to every email). For the uninitiated, TL;DR = too long; didn’t read.
A friend of mine in marketing once said to me,
If you find a new tool to reach people, you will find marketing in tow ready to ruin the tool’s experience.
Think about your engagement with social media. Early stages social media, circa 2004, when Facebook was released to my then undergraduate community at the University of Connecticut. The Facebook, at the time, was basically a simple profile with the ability to build a network of friends and ‘poke’. Beyond that, tools like the Like button and advertisement were non-existent in the then college student-only tool. I still remember basketball players bragging about how many pokes they got over the course of a weekend. Marketing was introduced and generally ruined the initial experience of Facebook. That and all of the silos of information based on computer algorithms.
I mention Facebook because it is just another electronic source of information overload. In the context of email, the problem is that sales and marketing has long since ruined email. Politicians through privacy laws have created barriers to make that experience slightly better, but much like physical mail, junk still inevitably will consume part of your time. Marketing and sales need channels to reach us, our society is at least partially based on consumerism, which is sparked by fear or other emotional engagement. So far, though, Google did the best job, earliest with segmenting my email into the ‘you should read this’ to ‘this is promotional’ through automation. Thanks, Google. Microsoft did something similarly, but they are discriminating in a way that makes my interactions with my inbox uncomfortable. Ultimately, I appreciate engaging with marketing on my own terms. Telemarketing, hard sales pushes should be a thing of the past, and through privacy rules, we are seeing improvements in the quality of marketing arriving in our inboxes.
In the government, our servants are all targets of much more personalized marketing. It comes from me, it comes from peers, it comes from people who are just trying to make any sale. The trouble with this for our government people is the average person receives 126 emails a day. My assumption is our government counterparts are above average and have a lot of things pulling at them daily. Email may not be the best method to create these relationships. I would continue to rank it as one of the lowest performing ways to engage in a relationship. The noise of these messages and the expectation of response by many for every email creates an almost insurmountable task.
No opt out.
Most emails within the government are interpersonal communication. It is not tactful to send an email to someone who put thought into (hopefully) the message they sent you. This pressure results in a taller stack of email to filter. Even if you, as a user, choose not to engage with these messages, you will lose at least some effectiveness by receiving another pile-on message that goes into the backlog of ‘work’. What I like about Mr. Newport’s book is that he distinctly draws a line between email and work, suggesting that email is not necessarily work.
Without an option to leave a conversation, users get trapped in the broad chatter. Users are stuck with notifications on all of their enabled devices that another unread message is there. Often, due to our nature, we respond to that notification like Pavlov’s dog. We are salivating. We definitely heard the bell, so food is coming. Furthermore, unwanted messages pile up or are discarded to filtered folders. The problem is that culturally we are engaging with this electronic tool in overwhelming, and potentially destructive ways.
Simple systems like email were originally designed to replace fax machines, replace interoffice mail, replace massive installations of interoffice pneumatic tube communication. However, it is how we engage with systems that really matters. As smart as the smartest engineer might be behind the origins of email, they would probably not be able to predict the current state of affairs based on what was then a simple, internal network-only communication model. As with many technologies (Facebook, Twitter, etc. included) it started with little fanfare and a lot of doubters. Now we have addictive, sometimes unhealthy relationships with many immediate gratification and communication tools.
Asynchronous communication like email is not necessarily bad or evil. The way we culturally adopted the technology does have negative context. For many of us that grew up with email as a fact of life, it is a tool in our arsenal. However, what I see in behaviors in peers, mentors, and employees can be challenging. I too am subject to making this mistake, though I have endeavored to improve in the past several years of my career. It is easy to send a flurry of emails. It is easy to answer questions with questions to buy time. It is easy to lose context and humor in the context of a flat text message.
Overarching, the mode of communication is critical when considering how you use systems. The DoD has a culture of Outlook that yo-yos whenever new technologies are introduced and then removed. Still, email alone is not sufficient for asynchronous communication, and its use as a method to replace synchronous communication should no longer be acceptable.
A Hypothesis for Consideration
Since starting this book, it is apparent to me that there are at least two main shortcomings with the innovation of email in the workplace. I have since started to formulate a hypothesis about how to fix the problem.
- I propose that it is possible that we, culturally, could engage with email in a more meaningful purpose, and other, more suitable tools for purposes we currently default to email.
- I propose that it is possible that technology will advance to make a new leap to professional, asynchronous communication — potentially incorporating the context of body language into asynchronous communication.
For item one to work, we would need to start experimenting with how we use email. Some of our DoD users are already engaging in efforts to leverage Confluence for broad, opt-in communication, Mattermost for team and direct messaging, file sharing, incidence response, and Jira for the project management they were hacking at with Outlook. Yes, this is more tools, more data entry, and it is also more transparency and more accountability. The juice is worth the squeeze as it changes the conversation from ‘have you done this thing I just remembered’ to ‘what’s blocking you from succeeding with task A?’. This is subtle, but powerful change. Furthermore, users are not bombarded with emails, though chat presents a slippery slope for more bad habits to form, at least it can be a subscription model. The hard part is changing the behaviors to reinforce good quality communication in chat format rather than continuing to push and agenda to users through means of force or fear. Enabling users to actually subscribe where content is effective can be useful. Selectively choosing where ‘push’ is necessary is going to be a shift in thinking.
The second item is actually something that has me thinking about TikTok. It is certainly a tool currently used for quick videos and meme generation. It is a popularity tool. It is definitely not suitable for the DoD, nor am I suggesting that we should use TikTok in the DoD. However, it does one thing that we struggle with in a geographically distributed organization. It does asynchronous communication better than an email. In an easily digestible format, video enabled, you can tell if someone is smiling, you can see more about their sarcasm than you can when they use Comic Sans instead of Times New Roman. In my opinion, asynchronous communication that must be a push method would be better in video or visualized format. Could you see a world with video communications in an asynchronous environment? It brings back thoughts of Back to the Future II, where Marty gets fired by fax. Still, would it not be healthier to have a video to gain understanding of the context of the push message?
Overall, though, synchronous messaging is still very important. I would not recommend sending nastygrams or condescending emails. If you have a problem, I encourage you to consider your mode of communication. Is email the right way to communicate to everyone? Is that the right audience? What do you think of the other know-it-all that does that to you? If you want to celebrate, do you want that to be done in yet another email, or do you want to see the reaction of your peers?