Taming the digital beast

Nov 14 2007 by John Blackwell Print This Article

Last year, the Financial Times ran an editorial discussing the effectiveness of communications within today's organisation. They primarily looked at the use of digital channels (e-mail, intranets, instant messenger, SMS, etc) and their conclusion was stark: "in the attention economy, the value of e-mail is rapidly approaching zero".

What does this mean to the majority of organisations that rely on e-mail for communications? Are we at a tipping point? If so, how should firms respond? How else could we communicate to staff? And, with the emergence of alternate communication channels, how should these be managed to avoid repetition of today's communication overload?

The background to e-mail

To understand these issues, it's first useful to understand how we came to rely on e-mail and understand what the limitations of this channel are. Dependence on e-mail, as the main communication mechanism within organisations, has progressively and stealthily spiralled over recent years.

Until the comparatively recent dawning of the computer era, organisations ran a very structured format. Meetings were minuted and transcribed by secretaries, who would also manage diaries, write up notes, distribute memorandums, and chase actions. Managers structured their day by dealing with correspondence at the outset of the day, with every letter opened, read by the secretary, and prioritised.

When e-mail first emerged, it was solely used by academics and the scientific community. Initially, the corporate world viewed e-mail with considerable suspicion and indeed, to put this suspicion into perspective, it's only recently that e-mail has become legally acknowledged as a permissible form of correspondent evidence.

However, e-mail progressively gathered momentum to become today's preeminent business communication tool of choice. The lure was the almost instantaneous speed that correspondence could be sent and received compared to the multi-day turnaround required be physical mail. Advocates of e-mail even coined the derisory term "snail mail" to describe physical written and typed hard-copy correspondence.

The impact was dramatic; typing pools disappeared almost overnight, secretaries morphed into personal assistants – the sole preserve of just top-level managers – and middle management came to rely on e-mails in ever-increasing volumes for communicating to their staff.

What went wrong?

At the outset, this all sounded encouraging. Perceived efficiencies were created within the organisation through rapid communications; deals could be concluded in a much shorter timeframe; lengthy and protracted correspondence chains could be compressed into hours rather than days; and the flow of information within (and beyond) the enterprise continued to spiral. So what happened to sour the picture? In one word, spam!

In October 2007, research by Postini – the world's leading electronic mail security firm – demonstrated that 10 in 11 e-mails were unsolicited spam – that's a staggering 86 per cent!

The traditional view of spam is that it solely refers to messages from outside the organisation. But this premise is flawed – today, we also have to contend with "enterprise spam". This is staff sending all manner of e-mails internally that are neither relevant nor important. During the days of memo's, if someone found a set of keys on the floor they wouldn't write a memo to all employees in the company asking for the owner!

Fundamentally, we have become "e-mail junkies" – adding to the swathes of external unsolicited e-mail with internal, frequently 'cc'd' communications, discussing meetings, calls-to-action (both other people's actions and your own), information requests - and those seeking the owner of lost keys!

This "white noise" of e-mail is one of the main reasons organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to get important information through to their staff.

In the last ten years, the average meeting size has leapt by 250 per cent
Recently dubbed the "attention economy", this newly coined term perfectly pitches the problem of information overload. As a digital society, we have become information-rich, but attention-poor. Our days are filled with an avalanche of information demanding action – some are vital, some are trivial – and employees are finding it increasing hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, to get to the actionable and important information.

A fascinating and potentially detrimental 'by-product' of the e-mail 'cc' culture has been a huge increase in the size of meetings. In the last ten years, the average meeting size has leapt by daunting 250 per cent - the evidence for this almost entirely points to the emergence of e-mail and the propensity for copying dozens of staff on meeting details, whether it's crucial or trivial.

Punching through the fog

Organisations today are anxiously trying a maelstrom of approaches, techniques and tools to punch through this communication fog – satellite broadcast networks, newsletters, round table discussions, web casts, canteen briefings etc, - with each approach offering its own degree of value.

However, in today's digital world, the preeminent direct-to-desktop communication stubbornly remains e-mail or elaborate intranets that tend to be disorganised dumping grounds for valuable information. These intranets are akin to putting an important notice on the inside of cupboard door – you only see the notice if you choose to open the door, and if you know where the cupboard is in the first place.

Clearly, this communication fog and its resulting attention deprivation cannot continue spiralling out of control – ever-more e-mail, ever-increasing meetings, and ever-decreasing time to respond through a growing scatter of channels does not make for effective business.

What's needed is for organisations to take a fresh look at business-to-employee communications – one that harnesses and manages the best attributes of the existing digital channels, but additionally cuts through the noise to push critical high-importance, high-impact message channels directly to the employees desktop.

Fortunately, research over the last five years has led to the development of "push" technology. This provides the ability to deliver alerts directly to the desktop – combining a live notification platform to harness e-mail, SMS, and RSS intranet feeds to serve critical messages directly to the desktop. Such technologies permit an organisation to map their communication requirements to the most appropriate channel, reserving the super high impact desktop alert channel for critical communications.

The value of such communication breakthroughs can be truly multi-dimensional. Not only can pro-active, targeted, relevant information be guaranteed to reach the individual desktop in a timely fashion, it can also ensure the recipient responds in the desired manner.

What's more, real cost savings can be achieved through the reduction in support infrastructures. For example, research has established that a pro-active communication environment that keeps staff informed of service outages and systems availability can deliver a 20-30 per cent reduction in incoming calls to a support desk. This alone could deliver millions a year in cost avoidance for a medium-to-large organisation.

Were we to consider the worlds of compliance and legal requirements, critical information and the alignment of strategy with execution becomes absolutely paramount. A recent Gartner report on effective electronic communication projected that a 10,000-person organisation could be losing in excess of £20 million per annum from ineffective communication.

In conclusion, these technologies present organisations with fresh opportunities to leverage the best attributes of their existing digital communication channels whilst adding new channels that can punch through business 'noise'.

But remember - as Spiderman was warned by his uncle - with great power, comes great responsibility. Organisations should deploy such new technologies just to become yet another catch-all e-mail channel. Let's face it, how many employees would be impressed by a desktop alert that takes over their screen to tell them that fish is on the menu in the staff restaurant?

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.