Graduate: You read my e-mail, I'll read yours

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The information revolution has thrown up a new class of addictive personality - the `dataholic' who gets high on sending and reading e-mails.

It's good to talk - but it may not be so good to e-mail. British Airways has just reminded employees that there are "alternative means of communication", such as the telephone, and has asked them to send fewer e-mails.

BA is one of many businesses hit by a potentially crippling disorder that requires urgent treatment: addiction to electronic mail. The factor that drove BA to act was its spiralling IT budget. Experts say that all corporations need to install effective rules to control e-mail use.

Dr David Grimshaw, senior lecturer in information systems at Cranfield University, has just completed a study on "information overload". He says that misuse of e-mail is a serious problem that managers must react to quickly. He surveyed 567 staff at the actuaries Watson Wyatt, and found that some employees received more than 50 e-mails a day, with over three hours spent sending and responding to them.

But while many staff were involved in non-productive e-mail activity, the problem was located in particular parts of the business rather than being spread across the whole organisation. This gives a hint to the solution, says Dr Grimshaw. "If it is working well in some areas of the business, why not spread good practice? E-mail is good at one-to-many communication. What it is probably bad at is one-to-one communication. People should choose the appropriate communications medium for their purpose."

The difficulty is not merely the cost and waste of time; e-mail can also encourage staff into bad habits. "People hide behind e-mail, and say things they would never dare say face to face," explains Dr Grimshaw. "If I were a clerk I would never dare send a memo to my MD, but I might send him an e-mail." And senior staff can be tempted into hamfisted personnel management, giving off-hand instructions or discussing salary details in electronic messages that may be intercepted by the wrong person. "Personnel matters should be dealt with using a sealed envelope or face to face."

Companies should establish protocols on how to get the best from e-mail, Dr Grimshaw advises. "Often people unnecessarily send e-mail copies for information. They need to focus more. Content must contain an indication of the response a person is supposed to make. We found people spent a lot of time rereading e-mail, not knowing what they were supposed to do with it."

Dominic Storey, director of technology at Novell, a leading network software company, agrees. "We produce general guidelines for e-mail and voice mail," he says. "Companies should have specific guidelines for both. Staff should avoid copying too many mails, reread things before they send them, and use other facilities, such as shared files, rather than sending everything as e-mail." Correspondents should also label mail effectively, so that a recipient can see a glance the subject matter and the level of urgency.

Too often e-mails are sent out indiscriminately, so that a suggestion to meet for drinks after work sent around the London office also ends up in the electronic mailbox in Tokyo. Businesses will in any case want to minimise personal e-mail use, Mr Storey believes. "Some staff are choosing to do work things, others are not. It is the same as browsing the Internet. Some employers are threatening to discipline staff for misuse, saying that e-mail will be randomly checked."

The seriousness of the problem is confirmed by other studies. Hays Accountancy Personnel found that 60 per cent of respondents used e-mail to avoid direct confrontations in unpleasant situations; 60 per cent also thought that e-mail was used when a meeting was more appropriate. Half of those questioned said that e-mail is addictive; they check for e-mail more than 10 times a day, and read even junk electronic messages.

A separate survey conducted for the business and media information company Reuters found that 50 per cent of those questioned knew people who could be classified as "dataholics". The vast majority of respondents said that employers should train staff in information management, and three-quarters thought it should go into the school and university curriculum.

None of this means, of course, that e-mail is a bad thing. But as with all communication, the skill lies in how to use it.