Over the past few days, it seems that I've been involved in a few conversations about the volume of e-mail at Microsoft. My general impression is that most of us believe that we send and receive a lot of e-mail as compared to others. Of course, we don't really have any data to back this up (at least none that I'm aware of); and frankly, I'm not sure we'd be thrilled if we discovered that we actually do send more. Is sending more e-mail a good thing? Or does it simply illustrate that we're slaves to our technology?
As many of you know, I was with Microsoft Consulting Services as a field employee for almost five years before I relocated to Redmond, Washington in January of this year. Although I didn't change companies, there was an obvious increase in e-mail traffic after I made the move. The culture here at corporate seems to enjoy cc'ing anyone who might have anything to say about a given topic. It sometimes reminds me of decision by committee. Good or bad, I've found myself following their lead.
Sure, there are lots of impromptu hallway conversations and meetings, but if the topic is something that we want to have on record, it better be discussed via e-mail. That creates another problem: how does someone actually store all of these conversations in a meaningful and searchable way? There have actually been books written on this topic. You've probably heard others blog about Take Back Your Life: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized or David Allen's Getting Things Done. These books and programs contain some useful ideas...don't get me wrong. But that's only if you accept that the deluge of e-mail is actually providing a benefit to the work you do.
As a thought experiement, what if you sent and received so much e-mail that it actually replaced all phone calls, meetings, and verbal communication? Would you be any more efficient or effective just because you've written a lot, have an "audit trail" of the communications, and allowed your recipients to reply at their convenience (usually when they're sitting in another meeting)? :-) Or would you just have improved your typing skills and your ability to configure fancy rules in Outlook? And if this continued ad infinitum, how much storage would you need!?
There's certainly tremendous value in communication. But, for most positions, is the value mostly in the communication itself? Perhaps if you're someone who is spending most of their time coordinating or managing a group of people, this makes sense. For someone who has other activities to perform, after a certain threshold, it would seem that e-mail is more of a distraction.
The other problem is signal to noise ratio. Because we receive many e-mails that aren't addressed directly to us (via cc, bcc, or distribution list, for example), I think we stop spending the time to carefully read and consider each e-mail message. The "noise" side of the ratio gets so high that we become sloppy. Speaking from personal experience—and today alone—I had to answer three questions that I had just answered in prior e-mails to the same people. Fortunately (or not), a lot of us have resorted to succint bullet-point e-mails that use underlining, boldfacing, or highlighting to focus the attention of our readers.
I may sound like I'm ranting, but I'm really just musing on the volume of e-mail at Microsoft. It's caused me to examine when and why I send an e-mail message versus when I pick up the phone or walk down the hall. I just took a moment to count the number of e-mail messages in my sent items folder (replies, original e-mails, etc.) over the past week. Here are the results:
I compared my numbers to this O'Reilly Survey, and I'm afraid that I fall into the "more than 60" category. I know that I'm not unique. Granted, it's PDC time, and communications are high, but these don't seem overly abnormal to me.
What's your experience? How many e-mails have you sent over the past week?