by CIO Staff

E-Mail, The Double-Edged Sword

Sep 26, 20054 mins

Corporate America is in a love-hate relationship with e-mail.

On one hand, e-mail has become so critical that businesses could not function without it. On the other side, the volume is so high that much of it goes unread by intended recipients.

While the conflict over the relationship with e-mail continues, the amount of time that senior executives and managers spend daily on e-mail is actually increasing, though some may find hard it hard to believe it is possible to spend more time on e-mail than was been being spent already.

In 2001, a reported 71 percent of senior executives and managers were spending more than one hour or more a day on e-mail. In 2003, that number was 75 percent. Today it is 80 percent, based on three nationwide surveys over those times by NFI Research.

A third of executives and managers are now spending three or more hours a day on e-mail, with six percent spending more than four hours a day.

Interestingly, though more business leaders today are spending more time writing and reading e-mail, they say the amount of unnecessary e-mail they receive is going down, although a third still say more than half the e-mail they receive is not necessary.

“Spam, even with our filters in place, continues to be a problem,” said one survey respondent.”

Said another: “Junk mail is junk mail, whether it’s in the post box on the end of my lane, or the inbox on my computers.”

Problems arise when e-mail essentially gets out of control. “E-mail started as a better way to communicate,” said one respondent. “It has evolved into an albatross.”

“E-mail overload is getting worse, but it’s largely from external sources,” said one manager. “I have no idea where some of these companies have gotten my corporate e-mail address or why they send the totally irrelevant un-asked for offers that they do.”

While some find e-mail absolutely necessary, others find it used as an internal political tool. For example, a purchasing agent might require all requests and changes in writing, making e-mail an essential documentation tool.

“E-mail is the great cop-out to critical thinking and reasoned management,” said one survey respondent. “It wastes as much time as it saves. E-mail is often just a CYA tool, particularly when there is a bare copy without explaining why people are copied.”

Said another: “If folks could only get two basic rules: Don’t cc the world, and if someone should fall out of the loop, take them off the list. Oh, and do not hit reply-all on general stuff; that’s annoying. And if folks would stop with the unnecessary forwarding of jokes and stupid stuff and chain letters and political requests, we’d live in a better world.”

Based on responses in the survey over a base of more than 1,000 companies, the chief executive also can play a significant role in e-mail usage within an organization, either positively or negatively.

“Luckily, our current CEO began a campaign four years ago, when he assumed that role, to stamp out war by e-mail and the endless chain e-memo,” said one manager. “We don’t have total success, but the volume has dropped significantly. He is currently on a campaign to stop multiple names in the ‘to’ line. His position is that if the e-mail is to six people and requires action, no one feels accountable for taking the action, so nothing happens. We’re seeing some success on this as well. All in all, except for ubiquitous spam, things are better.”

One CEO introduced e-mail-free-Fridays, “so we can talk to each other again,” said another manager.

Then there is the negative side. “We suffer from a CEO who won’t read his e-mail, yet demands that his staff communicate with him primarily via Blackberry,” said one respondent. “He seldom keeps an appointment to meet face-to-face. If the e-mail is short, he wants more detail. If you give him detail, he admonishes us to keep the e-mails short. E-mail is an insidious, misused, virus-infecting business.”

Perhaps most telling is that a larger percentage of senior executives than managers are spending more time on e-mail today. Conversely, a significantly larger percentage of managers say they are dealing with e-mail overload by deleting e-mail without reading.

Where’s the effective communication in that?