I was reading the July issue of CIO magazine when I came across a quote from Ross Mayfield, the president and cofounder of Socialtext, which produces enterprise wikis. The quote from him reads, “(Employees) spend most of their time handling exceptions to business processes. That’s what they are doing in their inbox for four hours a day. E-mail has become the great exception handler.”

I couldn’t agree more, but I would like to add to his statement and say that, in my opinion, e-mail is not just the exception handler, but in many cases, it’s the primary method for business process communication.

In fact, this phenomenon is so commonplace that e-mail is no longer a communications medium — it is a document/file management system as well. Look through your inbox and identify how many e-mails could actually stand alone without needing to reference at least one attachment and several previous e-mail messages. My guess is that there are very few of them once you get past the “thank you” messages and the spam. Is this really what we intended e-mail for? For those of you who are old enough to remember the introduction of e-mail into an organization, did you ever dream your inbox would increase to the size it is today?

How did we get here and why has it happened? There are a number of reasons, and I’d like to expand on a few.

  1. Making it up as we go along. As I said above, e-mail becomes particularly handy when you are making your business processes up as you go along, and you end up managing your workflow and exceptions through e-mail.
  2. Not enforcing business processes. The organization has well defined processes but doesn’t enforce them; therefore, people choose to do what they are comfortable with — which is send an e-mail. No matter that what they should have been doing is filling out a form (electronically) and having it routed automatically within a system to be handled appropriately.
  3. Business processes that are not automated or automated with software that is outdated or doesn’t fulfill the user’s needs. Lacking automation, people will turn to what they have available in order to get their work done. If a business process has no automation, e-mail becomes a de facto substitute. Imagine a permitting operation that has no automation. A person comes in the door, requests a permit, fills out a form, provides necessary documentation, and then waits for approval. In lieu of a dedicated permitting system, creative staff come up with the following: Person comes in the door, fills out the form and provides necessary documentation. Staff scans the forms and documents into images and attaches them to an email to the next person in the process, who then handles and moves the process on. I could go on, but you can quickly see that while the above solution “works” to a degree, the e-mail system suddenly has turned into a document management system, a database, and a file management system.
  4. Lack of communications within an application or integration with other communication mechanisms. I have always been a big believer that if you create an application to suit a purpose such as a permitting system, that you try to keep the users inside the application to the greatest extent possible. Ideally, that means that all messages and communications regarding the business process originate, transmit, and store within the application. Thus in my example, all information regarding permits is found in one place — the permitting system.
  5. Lack of communication alternative besides e-mail. Some processes aren’t amenable to an application because they are more free form, yet need some kind of structure. This is where wikis, intranets, mashups, instant messaging, and other Web 2.0 applications become necessary. Without them, e-mail becomes the repository for any and all information.

I am sure my list of why e-mail is bloated is not exhaustive, but it gives you a great start on how you might move your business process communications and exception handling outside of your e-mail system and into something more appropriate. Doing so will not only improve operations overall, but will go a long way toward taming the volumes of storage one must continue to purchase and maintain in order to support the ever-burgeoning e-mail system.