Is email a waste of time?

Mike Elgan, a ComputerWorld columnist, calls email a “pandemic disease” in a new column this week; a rather curious supposition for someone in the tech business who no doubt relies a great deal on email himself. But it’s an interesting piece that merits a thoughtful response.

Mike’s observation is that email is a time-waster that leads to “information overload” that requires too much of a businessperson’s day. He claims that the average executive spends about two hours a day on email, which is probably about right. But let’s look at the big picture and where this argument breaks down. What did executives do before email? I’m old enough to remember those days. Executives spent at least that amount of time dictating letters to secretaries, or into tape recorders for later transcription. Therefore, you had to take into account not only the executive’s time spent writing and dictating, but also the secretary’s time transcribing and typing. Then, on top of the “time spent” line item, you also had an inherent delay. After a letter got dictated and typed, the secretary would then present the letters to the boss at the end of the day for signature, and then they wouldn’t go out until the next day. Then with the snail mail factor added in, communication by letter would take three or four days–and the two hours a day Elgan says is spent on email has to be compared with what was no doubt much more than that in the pre-email days, especially given that two people were involved (boss and secretary) instead of just one.

Even communication within the same company was done with the old “inter-office memo”, which went through the same dictation/typing/signature process, and was then distributed by a mail clerk, so then, you had three people (boss, secretary, mail clerk) involved. Either way, it was inefficient.

It’s true that the ease of email, and the ability to send unlimited numbers of people huge quantities of information, does have the potential for overload, although having to manage huge amounts of information has always been part and parcel of the business executive’s burden. We just do it with email today instead of with huge amounts of paper. Naturally, the spam issue costs time, but this is addressed handily with spam filters today.

The recommended steps in the article are to minimize use of email by setting up a Twitter account, managing multiple public email accounts for different purposes, and communicating through Facebook and other social networking accounts. In fact, using a public email account for when you need to give an email address to gain information or access to a web site can be useful and this is good advice. In almost every case, these emails are being harvested for the purpose of sending more advertisements, so using an alternate email is a good way to deflect a lot of those ads. Twitter account? Not so much. I do use Twitter, but find that most of the Twitter entries I see are completely useless bits of random information that nobody really cares about. Twitter can be a good business tool for sending out small, business-related updates to people, but as a way of replacing email, it won’t work. Ultimately, the industry is moving towards unified communication, not a scenario where you must manage multiple accounts (three or four email accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, etc.) separately, which would be even more of a time-waster than having to sort through whatever spam is left over after your filter has done its job.

Written by Dan Blacharski

The corporate world unceremoniously booted Dan Blacharski out of his cubicle over 15 years ago, and he’s never looked back. Since that time, he has been a full-time professional freelance writer, public relations consultant and analyst, and has published six books and thousands of articles. He divides his time between South Bend, Indiana and Bangkok, and married the renowned Thai writer Charoenkwan Prakthong in 2005. He and his wife enjoy traveling the world, and spending time with their Boston Terrier, Pladook.

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