Email Overload: Band-Aids Are Not Solutions

A company called Seriosityhas introduced a new tool for email productivity, Attent, which attacks what they say is the main source of information overload: SENDERS! Yes, it’s the people sending email that are the real problem that need to be addressed, according to Attent, so they’ve come up with a system for businesses to implement which is supposed to make people stop and consider if something is worth emailing. 

With Attent, each employee is given a set amount of “Serios” per week, which are basically like virtual dollars. For each email you send, you can attach a certain number of Serios to it, depending on importance. More important emails are sent using more Serios. The system works as an Outlook plugin, and, since it only works with other people who also use Attent, the company would have to roll this out to everyone to make it an effective tool.

While this is an interesting idea, the reasoning behind this idea is that you can force people to email less by forcing them to calculate how much they can “afford” to email, and that seems to me a pretty much a knee-jerk reaction to dealing with info overload.

For one thing, Attent can’t stop people outside the company from emailing, so it only forces internal employees to turn to phone calls and face-to-face requests which may be even more disruptive than emails.

From personal experience, I found that a lot of people chose to email simply because email was the absolute fastest way to send out a request for help, a question, or to share a message with a large number of people. When this became a burden, such as it was at one of my I.T. jobs, the real cause that should have been addressed was why were people turning to email instead of using the tools to them at hand? Why were people sending emails instead of logging help desk tickets? Why were people sending emails instead of referring to online documentation? Why were people sending emails instead of doing the job themselves – which they had the ability and permissions to do, but not the know-how?

The problem that must be addressed in every company are the underlying causes that lead some people to use email far more than necessary – and use it first, without thinking things through. This tool, Attent, aims to do that, but without  deeper understanding about what’s wrong in the particular company.

For example, in my situation, implementing a I.T. support email address that directly posted items to the helpdesk instead of arriving in my inbox would have been a big help. Training people where to find the answers they need and how to use the tools we had in house would also have cut down on the emails. (Unfortunately, I didn’t have the authority to implement changes, because believe me, I would have!)

At another job of mine, where I did have authority to make changes, I spent a good part of a day out of the new hires’ week of training teaching the new employees about our in-house web resources – one of which was a SharePoint site. Even for those who had never been exposed to SharePoint, the majority were able to understand pretty quickly how they could use it and it definitely helped cut down on requests in the future as people weren’t emailing in basic questions like where to find a certain file or bit of information. They already knew where it was online.

Often businesses tend to overlook the value of training, but then they end up working harder due to the lack of training of their new employees. The value of real, instructor-led training is something every business needs to understand because, once in the thick of things, employees will never find the time to study user manuals or do research – everything becomes “I need an answer now.” The best time to reach employees and set out what the expectations are for them is at the very beginning of employment before they become reliant on using their preferred tools and processes that result in increased efficiency for them, but that decrease the overall efficiency of the company as a whole since they put the burden on other people who have mastered the use of the company’s informational systems.

Of course, training isn’t a panacea for the entirety of the information overload problem, but it’s certainly a better use of a company’s money that setting up a virtual economy where emails have a price tag associated with them, in my opinion.

For dealing with the remainder of the email, tools that add efficiency to the process of sorting through your inbox - like my business email add-on of choice, ClearContext - are really the way to go. Heavy use of filters, rules, and informational auto-responders can also help cut down on the flood. However, real solutions to today’s information overload problem are going to much more in-depth and complex than an Outlook plugin. Maybe IORG will come up with some answers for us.

(Image courtesy of Seriosity)

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