I took a vacation last week (first one in over a year) and although I didn’t go anywhere I made the decision NOT to pick up my Blackberry or VPN in to my work PC. I left instructions that if there was an EMERGENCY, I should be called – otherwise I’m not available.

It felt good – with one exception. The impending doom of knowing that I am going to have well over 300 (that’s my conservative estimate) email messages waiting for me when I get back.

This backlog of communications is part of the reason why you see pictures of people standing in the surf holding their child with one hand and holding a PDA in another. We have this desire (or fear or perhaps addiction?) of having to stay “connected” in order to keep up.

This makes me think of my experience many moons ago when I installed the first Exchange server for the organization I was working for at the time. I actually recall telling people “it’s called Email. Think of it as a way of leaving a detailed phone message without the need for them to have to “call” you back.”

My goodness, we must have spent a year cajoling people into using email and keeping their calendars in Outlook. It was like pulling teeth.

Fast-forward into the year 2007 and I can hear the Fred Sanford’s voice in my head saying “You BIG DUMMY! What did you do that for?”

Waxing nostalgic though doesn’t solve any problems, because at the time I was selfishly thinking that email would remove the massive pile of pink phone message slips that seemed to pile up on my desk. And you know what? It did! But they just moved from my desk into my electronic Inbox.

So here I sit in 2007 and realize that the problem is not with email itself, it is with the fact that we have taken a tool (email) and are overusing and abusing it.

A quick scan of your email inbox will probably result in something approximating this:

  • 5% External Spam (Stuff that should not be getting past your spam filter but are not.) 
  • 5% to 10% Internal Spam (Baby shower announcements, bad jokes, etc.)
  • 5% to 10% Self-Generated Spam (Messages from vendors of products we signed up for.)
  • 25% to 50% Organizational Informational Spam (These are messages that are CLEARLY meant for your INTRANET site. Examples include; organizational phone lists, monthly letters from the powers that be, daily news updates, etc.)
  • 25% to 50% WIKI/SharePoint potential conversations (These are email discussions amongst multiple parties, documents being worked on by emailing it to a dozen people and asking for their input, documents being mailed in order to deliver them to someone, etc.)
  • 5% to 10% Unnecessary Email (Thank you messages, replies that acknowledge delivery and receipt by the person getting the message – such as “got it! Thanks!)
  • 5% to 15% messages with content that I really need to attend to now.

In fact, by looking at your inbox in a critical fashion, you are probably going to find that you are missing or having to hunt for those truly important messages that you need to attend to.

So it is pretty clear that we are being over communicated with and many of us are suffering from information overload. So what is the solution? I would love to say “just add a Wiki and or SharePoint to the mix and just add water and your troubles will be over”. However that would not in fact fix the problem. While I do believe that these tools are important aspects of the solution, they are not silver bullets. The real answer lies in having your organization realize it has a communication problem and then resolving to fix it in order for everyone to perhaps work more efficiently and stress free. This is a much harder problem because people are creatures of habit and this kind of solution is going to have to come along with some major behavioral change.

So where do we start down the road of coming up with a communication plan for our organization that can lead to the implementation AND use of technologies that will in the long run make everyone’s life a bit easier? With a survey and needs assessment.

Starting the year off with a survey document that delves into your organization’s communication pattern and styles and hopefully capturing the angst that many have regarding email and information overload might be a good start in helping the organization to realize it HAS a problem to start with. Kind of like having a therapist working with a client to see that they have issues they need to deal with. With your survey results, you can then begin to explore what your organization needs to do in order to help work better and smarter.

More importantly, this survey will be the beginning of the campaign to convince management that this is something worth doing. Because frankly, unless this change is driven from the top down, it is going to be hard to make happen. Oh, you are probably asking yourself – “Why IT?” Well, because you will be providing the instruments through which change will come and if not you – who else? After all, our jobs are more then keeping things running – we are supposed to be adding value to the organization – No? IT is perfectly aligned to help institute this change – but you can’t go it alone. You are going to need business partners to help fight this fight.

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From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays