I’m in the middle of a couple books on complexity — and they’ve affected me. In the email hell that is my worklife, I started to think about an emergent/adaptive inbox. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Decaying Relevancy: Imagine all incoming email has a “freshness” date. It came in X time ago. That email is either read or unread. There’s quite a bit of intelligence in these two dimensions. Email I care about will be read while fresh. Email I drudge through — or that is complex — will be read and stale. Email that is unread and stale is useless. That leaves fresh unread email. That’s what I really care about making sense of.
Sender Benchmarking: Now is when it gets interesting. Imagine that I know, for each sender, a distribution on read/unread and freshness. That distribution is going to tell a lot — some shapes will be fat-headed, where 80% of the emails I read right away. Some will be fat-tailed — where I read very few of them right away. Based on these distributions, I can start to categorize and prioritize my email (or rather, it can be done adaptively based on my normal interaction with email).
Behavioral Conclusion: The last area that rounds out my adaptive email system is what happens with the read email. My biggest problem with work email is actually read mail that is sitting in my inbox. I either need to reply, archive, or take other action. The first two conclusions are part of my normal email workflow. Adding a follow-up action usually puts an email in purgatory. This is where the freshness comes in.
Bringing It All Together
So my problems fall out as follows:
- Unread important email
- Read, non-concluded, important email
- Read, non-concluded, unimportant email
- Unread, unimportant email
The key unknown is importance. Using sender distributions — I can determine importance as a function of freshness. Adding behavioral conclusion to the freshness metrics, we now can calculate % of items read and % concluded per sender. We can also weight these by the time it takes to do both of those.
By creating benchmarks/norms, each email can be given an importance rating. High importance items, with longer times in the unread and/or non-concluded buckets, receive the highest priority. Just by organizing my email inbox into unread-important and a read-non-concluded views, prioritized by freshness, I know I’d be quite a bit more productive.
Other interesting by-products could be a way to score how productive you are by day/daypart. You could also create a feedback mechanism to people you interact with via email — how important their emails are to you. Finally, you could break apart a senders importance distribution to allow them to explicitly rank a message on how important they think it is. Their rating could then be matched to how your emergent system rates it — and productive feedback loops could ensue.
Twitter, Facebook, wikis, blogs, and a smattering of other web 2.0 companies are being used for business. Yammer, specifically, caught my eye recently. It’s described as Twitter for business. But why? What gap is it filling? For me, the question is, what’s wrong with email?
Managing (if that’s possible) email is a full time job, at least at my company. With a Blackberry in hand there is an expectation that you will read, and sometimes reply to, emails as you receive them. If we could make money, as a company, reading and responding to emails, this might be okay. There’s probably a startup idea there. Regardless, that can’t be the only thing wrong with email.
The magnitude of emails can be troublesome, especially with the implicit expecation of response. The problem, however, is predicated on the push nature of the medium. If you take a random 10 emails from your inbox (or wherever your last 10 are), you’ll probably have a few that you wanted to receive — and in fact, are later arriving than you hoped (you have that same expectation of response for people you send emails to). But, there are probably a few that are just important enough that you have to read, and maybe doing something with, just not as you read them. And finally, you’ve got ones that are just cluttering your inbox. These are probably the easiest to deal with. The thing is, you don’t control what gets to your inbox in the first place.
Then there’s a matter of the content. Forget the continuing degredation (or increasing efficiency?) of the resolution of language. I’m concentrating here on the facts, requests, attachments, etc, that come along with emails. When you combine the magnitude of emails with their walled content obsured behind time, sender, and title, you get the inability to extract value from within your email program. All these other bits need to be removed from email and used somewhere else — in another program, in a contract, in a request, etc.
And a chain reaction from the previous problem? The group feature of email is lost after the first email. Meaning, if I send an email to 5 people, they all get the information inside. But what happens when one person replies? If we all wait to reply, in some predetermined order, there isn’t a problem. In reality, however, people respond (go back to the first problem) and sometimes a barrage of multiple responses flood the cc’s of the email in a disjointed mess. Further, if the intention is to progress on some file within the email, each of the recipients must open the attachment, make changes, and then hope to reassemble all of the simultaneous edits people are making.
This is just a start to some of what’s wrong with email as a corporate communication tool. I want to lay out this initial list and see how far it gets when I start talking about the solutions to email, including Yammer.