Tony Wolski

The problem with email


It seems to me that email is not the most effective means of communication anymore. I could count dozens of instances in recent years in which there have been serious disconnects in the teams and organisations I’ve worked for, in which information is not getting to all the relevant parties. Like the synapses of our collective brain were not connected all the required neurons.

I read a great article, Why everything should have a URL which made some great points about the deficiencies of email and today’s default workflow. The quote below is taken from the section Today’s default workflow:

Most organizations today transact business almost entirely through email and in-person meetings. Absent an additional step whereby participants go out of their way to capture and share context, organization knowledge primarily lives in two places: in employees’ heads, and in their inbox. If that employee leaves the organization, or if they win the lottery and don’t show up on Monday (read: bus factor), a significant amount of information — information essential to the organization’s continued operation — leaves with them.

Think through some common scenarios where a team member might need to gain additional context they weren’t originally privy to: they could have been out of the office when a decision was made (humans do silly things like getting sick or making other, smaller humans), they could have been on a different team at the time, heck, maybe they weren’t even part of the organization at the time. Whatever the reason, they became a stakeholder mid-decision or post-decision, and thus lack the context necessary to properly participate going forward, especially not on equal footing.

How is that essential context shared? In many organizations I suspect the answer is “I guess you had to be there. I think Bob was there that day, you should go ask him”. Assuming you can find Bob’s desk, he’s in the office that day, free at the moment, and remembers a meeting that potentially happened months or years earlier, you might be able to get your question answered, but that process doesn’t scale as people constantly move around and new team members are onboarded. Bob could hunt through his inbox and forward a stream of emails for you to read through in reverse chronological order, but that’s likely neither efficient nor very helpful for either party involved (“can you forward me the attachment?”).

Ain’t that the truth.

This highlights a huge issue that most knowledge based organisations should be addressing if they’re not already. No doubt there’s no golden bullet solution that solves all of the problems with email, but more email is certainly not the answer.

…the vast majority of office communication, especially technical discussions (be they legal code or software code) and those related to decision making, can and should be shifted to more modern, asynchronous tools. Think Slack, GitHub issues, or Basecamp.

A great example of an innovative use of one of these tools is how GitHub’s Services team uses GitHub.

Anyway, this is just my rant for the day after a few miscommunications recently. Comments more than welcome.

Your thoughts? I'd love to hear them. Please get in contact.