posted 19 May 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 8
It's more than just e-mail
E-mail may be a pain, but is the problem the technology or the failure of the 'information society' to tame and extract the value from it?
By Marc Fresko
What a pain e-mail is. And yet, e-mail is now deeply embedded as an essential communications channel for many business processes in almost all sectors.
It causes different sorts of pain for different parts of each organisation. In the IT Operations area, the constantly growing call for storage hurts badly. In the compliance arena, the difficulty of managing huge volumes of dynamic data causes worries for the health of an organisation – indeed, the occasional suggestion of instant remedies in the shape of e-mail management systems can threaten to make this even worse. And, of course, users struggle with the headache of dealing with the flood of information and spam.
There are two kinds of problems here. The pain as described is mainly due to a reactive problem – managing the result of e-mail adoption. But we should not forget the pro-active problem, namely working out what we need to do to maximise the business benefits we gain from it – a concept that is relevant to all technologies, as I will explain.
The proximate cause of these pains is obvious: the sheer volume of e-mail. It is difficult to obtain authoritative numbers for e-mail volumes, due to the decentralised and essentially unmanaged nature of the internet. However, by way of example, estimates for 2006 volumes range from 60 billion per day (Deutsche Telekom) to over 183 billion per day (Radicati Group), the higher figure, incidentally, equating to an incredible two million per second.
Using another industry estimate of 1.2 billion e-mail users, this equates to between 50 and 150 messages per person per day – and even though the majority of them may be spam (a faintly incredible 90 to 95 per cent, according to studies from SoftScan and Barracuda Networks), that still leaves more information to be processed than most people can manage well.
But beyond the obvious, why else do we struggle so to get our e-mail under control? Is it because e-mail is new, perhaps? Absolutely not. I find it chilling to reflect that it is no less than 25 years since I managed a large-scale rollout of e-mail to thousands of users around the globe. And the technological roots of e-mail go back even further, to the early 1960s. E-mail systems in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s were early incarnations, now obsolete; but even if we limit our horizon to today’s pervasive SMTP internet e-mail, widespread adoption started at least 15 years ago.
Now, isn’t 15 years ample time for our ‘information society’ to learn how to manage the side effects of a new technology?
The shapers of technology have brought us, in quick succession, a wide variety of novelties that are relevant in business: starting with bulletin boards, then the world wide web (plus its close relatives, intranets and extranets) and more recently Web 2.0 solutions such as social networks, RSS, wikis, and blogs.
Not to forget the fashionable ‘collaboration’ technologies, and an innumerable host of tools that are less obviously business-oriented but that nevertheless are relevant to some: file sharing networks (such as YouTube and Flickr).
Most businesses are wondering what to do about these new technologies. Block them? Limit their use? Adopt them? There are plenty of examples of organisations using them to great advantage, including instances of specific quantifiable benefit, but the majority seem to be set to repeat with these new technologies the delays and uncertainties that have led to the pain of e-mail.
So, are you doomed to suffer the pain of reacting to the issues raised by these new technologies for 15 years or more after they emerge? Or are you prepared to act in a way that will proactively reap the benefits of these technologies for your organisation?
There is a simple remedy to these problems. You have to recognise the value to your enterprise of these technologies, and of the information they hold or provide. And you have to manage them proactively, exerting good governance in much the same way as you would govern other resources.
You need to devise policies for them – procedures and mechanisms to ensure they are used beneficially or not at all. You need to monitor their use, taking action to increase, decrease, or change usage patterns to keep these aligned atop your policies; and you need to assign roles and responsibilities that enable all this to happen.
This sounds simple, and indeed it is, but it clearly calls for top-level management endorsement and support – installing another software package will not do the trick. It really is not such a bitter pill to swallow. Surely it is better than another 15 years of pain? ?
Marc Fresko is EDM & ERM Consulting Services Director at Serco Consulting, London, UK.