Business Life: Email

29th January, 2008

First published in Business Life magazine, September 2007

It’s been a long time since the heady days of the late 1990s, when email was enough of a novelty to carry the plot of a romantic comedy. How times have changed: email is now an essential business tool. It is also the source of frustration and controversy. Does email actually make us more productive?
It’s not obvious that it does. First, there is the avalanche of emails offering penis enlargements, stock tips and the odd million dollars from Nigeria. Then – and probably more of a waste of time – there are the interminable work discussions into which you’ve somehow been copied. They’re useless and yet you feel you can’t afford to ignore them. Finally there are the clumsy, slowly-typed miscommunications that could have been handled quickly and more smoothly face-to-face. It is all worth it?
Marshall Van Alstyne, an economist at Boston University, thinks he may have an answer. Van Alstyne and various colleagues have been conducting research based on extremely detailed data from an executive recruitment firm – including 125,000 email messages sent and received over a period of ten months. Rather than looking at simple correlations, such as “does more email mean more work gets done?”, the researchers are looking at the pattern of email networks and the completion of specific tasks.
The first surprise is that an email exchange is often more productive than a conversation, because email helps people to juggle many different tasks. That seems to be because a conversation demands that two people are focussing on the same thing at the same time. Sure, you can do your nails while talking on the phone, but beyond that you need to drop what you’re doing and surrender to someone else’s priorities. Email doesn’t make that demand: the recipient can read it when the time is right.
The second surprise is that email’s real value doesn’t seem to be in communicating with Tokyo or even with someone on the other side of London. The most productive workers are not the ones who send the most email or whose external networks are the largest: they are the ones with the largest email network inside the same firm.
It’s ironic: we are always complaining that our colleagues send us an email rather than walking ten yards and talking to us. Yet it turns out that this apparently-frustrating behaviour is precisely the most productive way to use email. Sometimes common sense and economic sense don’t point the same way.

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