One of the most common complaints I hear from IT executives is that they’re no more efficient with electronic communication than they were with paper. Their argument is that there’s so much more being sent to them now than used to be sent on paper, they spend the majority of their time sifting through the bits looking for items relevant to their jobs.

It’s so easy to add someone to the cc line of a message that we all get bombarded with e-mail that we either can’t respond to or don’t know if we’re supposed to answer.

I’ve put together a simple set of rules and suggestions to help CIOs deal with the barrage of e-mail that they receive.

To whom should I address mail?
One of the first issues that causes confusion with new e-mail users (and many veterans) is deciding on which line to place a recipient: To, cc, or bcc. When addressing a message, I recommend that you suggest to e-mail users that they observe the following guidelines:

  • To: Put people on this line who are responsible for acting on information in the message body or to those from whom you expect a direct response. Unless the recipient is expected to do something as a result of receiving the mail, then don’t put their name on the To line.
  • cc: cc stands for courtesy copy. (E-mail history scholars will argue that this stands for carbon copy, but since none of us has ever gotten his or her hands dirty by reading an electronic piece of correspondence, it really doesn’t seem appropriate to carry this 1970s metaphor forward.) This means that you’re letting these people know about the contents of the message as a courtesy only and you do not expect them either to respond or to act on the basis of receiving the e-mail. In general, you should not hit Reply to All when responding to a cc message. Reply to All should only be used when responding to a message in which you’re included on the To line. As a cc recipient, the sender of the message did not intend to engage you in a dialogue about the subject, but only intended for you to know as a courtesy.
  • bcc: bcc means blind courtesy copy. This means that you want someone to know about a message, but you don’t need or want the other respondents to know that others are receiving the message. The most common use for addresses on this line are:
  1. Doing broadcast mailings. (Put yourself in the To line and all the broadcast recipients in the bcc line.)
  2. Sending mail to outside parties and alerting people inside the company that the message has been sent.

Remember that if you put someone’s e-mail address on the bcc line, then the external recipient doesn’t have a copy of the e-mail address, but if you put them on the cc line then the external recipient has the e-mail address (potentially leading to more spam or people making contacts inside the company that were not intended to be allowed by the sender of the message).

Managing your electronic mail account
Once you have a standard set of rules in place for how people use the address lines, you can build your own filtering and mail management capability. Most companies are using electronic mail client software (e.g. Microsoft Outlook) that has the ability to apply rules or filters to incoming mail messages.

In order to make the volume of mail that you receive easier to manage using a rule, just create a folder underneath your Inbox called CCMail. Use the rules capability of your electronic mail client to define a rule that moves any mail that you receive in which you were on the cc line into this folder.

Once you’ve created the rule, applied it to your Inbox, and configured the rule to run on all new incoming mail, the only mail remaining in your Inbox should be there because you need to act on it. You can review the mail in the CCMail folder at your leisure and respond only as necessary.

Electronic mail rules move mail out of your Inbox and into subfolders. Filters, on the other hand, leave the mail in the Inbox, but only show the mail that you ask for. You can use filters to show you only unread mail, mail received in the last seven days, mail marked urgent, etc. All of the mail stays in your Inbox unless you specifically delete it or move it to another folder.

By combining rules and filters, you can arrange your Inbox so that only the most important mail (with you on the To line) is displayed in the most useful format (applying a filter).

When saying too little is saying too much
One final recommendation: Never send a response of five words or less unless the sender specifically requests a response from a predetermined list of choices. (Will you attend the meeting? Yes/No.)

Responding to an e-mail message intended only to convey information only serves to clog up the communications lines more. If you’re the only person on the To line, then it should be understood that if there are actions to take as a result of the message, then you’ll take care of it.

If you’re not going to, then it should require a more detailed response than “no” to explain and sending a response of “OK” or “I’ll take care of it” is unnecessary. By educating your users on proper electronic etiquette, you can get back a couple of hours a week.
Do you have guidelines that you follow when sending e-mail to colleagues? Are there rules that you observe? Share them with us in an e-mail, or post your comments below.