19/09/2006 - 22:00

Technology enslaves the master

19/09/2006 - 22:00


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Email has changed the way we communicate at work and in our personal lives, but the technology has also given rise to problems, particularly in the office. WA Business News looks at the issues to be overcome and how WA businesses are going about it.

Technology enslaves the master

Email. Within the past decade or so, this internet-based communication has evolved from a simple alternative to the telephone to a communication vehicle of unprecedented volume.

From those early days – who can forget the joy of receiving a quickly typed message – many of us are now so swamped by email that relief only comes when we take time out of the office. And that, of course, only postpones the pain.

Apart from less-than-perfect spam filters, there is very little to stop the flow into your inbox once your email address has become widely dispersed.

No front desk, no receptionist, no mail room, no personal assistant, no restraint from convention, no need to follow procedures. These were the filters of the past.

Today, your computer allows almost everyone to bypass those important information gatekeepers.

And it’s not hard to find people complaining about it.

There’s a growing body of research on the matter. Those at the pointy end of the research suggest a lot of people spend at least two hours a day dealing with email.

But these aren’t people wasting time socialising; they are simply trying to get on top of legitimate messages.

Receiving anywhere north of 50 emails a day is both commonplace and, according to some, stressful. The suggestion is that, due to technology, many of us receive the same amount of information in a day that people received in a lifetime just a century ago.

Perth-based Technically Speaking principal Neil Hymans conducts seminars to help business deal with email. By his reckoning, it is now completely unremarkable to see the median time spent on email per person approaching between two and 2.5 hours every day.

“Average daily volumes of email now range from 50 to 300 messages, but this depends greatly on the level of the individual and the type of organisation that you’re talking about,” Mr Hymans said.

“For example, in one organisation I trained, the MD was receiving 300 a day – but he had inadvertently encouraged that with a very open communication culture.

“In more conservative organisations, the MD might receive relatively few – but line managers in the same company could be well up in the 150-plus range.”

The volume of email is a fundamental problem.

Stephen Barnes, the founder of Perth-based Unlocking Outlook Pty Ltd. which trades as Empty Inbox, believes the modern office has evolved so quickly that age-old processes for managing information have been lost in the process.

Email, Mr Barnes said, was a symptom of a much wider malaise.

“In the past 15 years we have been inundated with information,” he said.

“Technology gives us almost unlimited information with the desktop and, in the past five years or so, there is now almost unlimited ability to exchange information with others.”

Initially there was a huge productivity boost when email hooked up desktops across the office and across the world, offering the ability to reach people anywhere, at any time, forward vital documents and carbon copy multiple people at the click of a mouse.

But the rising tide became a flood and, without controls such as the paper memo system of old, many people have been swamped.

Graham Reid, a founder of another Western Australia company that has tackled this issue, Organised 1st Ltd, offers a simple analogy for how the modern communication tool is used differently from more traditional forms, which we all know how to handle – such as the physical mailbox at you home.

“When you get out of the car you clear your whole mail box, you don’t leave some in there for tomorrow,” he said. “And, by the time you get to the door, you have thrown out most of the rubbish.”

Mr Reid believes it is not the volume of email that’s the real problem, because we have already learned to filter most of the obvious rubbish with spam filters.

A key issue, he said, is the content.

“It is not the amount of emails,” Mr Reid said. “It is the amount of emails you get with a task.”

“That is the critical issue, you have to be able to process that to know what you have on, to prioritise it.”

This is the nub, it appears, of what all the experts are getting at.

It’s not whether you have 300 emails a day in your inbox, it is the amount of work it takes to sift through them to find out what they really mean to you.

There is, however, an even darker context to that.

Applecross-based Priority Management’s sales manager, Andy Buchanan-Hughes, believes that email has become a tool to shift responsibility; that somehow once an email is sent it somehow needs far less follow-up than a telephone message.

“We think when we send an email people have it under control,” Mr Buchanan-Hughes said.

“It is very poor delegation.

“You forward that email on but without instructions.”

Worse, Mr Buchanan-Hughes said, there was no tone or intonation, which leaves the message open to misinterpretation. That can be a dangerous proposition in the hierarchies of an office and can leave people unsure what to do in response to a message.

“We have taken the communication out through modern technology,” Mr Buchanan-Hughes said.

The result of this is failure.

“People are not meeting their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators),” he said.

So, has email unmasked an issue that we’ve overlooked due to earlier productivity gains from technology?

Neil Hymans thinks so.

“There is no doubt that it [email] has introduced productivity gains, which have largely been offset by losses due to inappropriate use,” he said.

“I’d say that the rapid growth in the popularity of email has revealed deeper organisational and cultural issues that always lurked beneath the surface, but it has taken a specific catalyst to make them actual, rather than potential.

“For example, it has also created a whole new raft of opportunities for employees to give the impression of doing work.

“My research consistently high-lights that almost all senior managers have at least a nagging awareness of email productivity problems, which is odd, considering how few are doing anything serious about it.”


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