The end of e-mail: discover new ways to stay in touch - Science - News - The Independent

The end of e-mail: discover new ways to stay in touch

It was the 250 e-mails a day that finally sent Darren Lennard, managing director of the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort, over the edge. At the end of a particularly bad afternoon in the City of London, he took his BlackBerry from his silk-lined pocket, saw the familiar screen full of new messages, and smashed the sleek, shiny gadget on his kitchen counter.

This is not simply a tale of CrackBerry rage. That day, two years ago, was a tipping point for a bigger issue. Back at the office, when Lennard's bosses heard of the incident, he faced no reprimand. They welcomed his outburst. E-mail, they recognised, was simply not working for the firm. What followed was an electronic revolution at Dresdner Kleinwort – against e-mail itself.

The problem with all those messages was clear. "Eighty-five per cent were totally not important to my job," Lennard says. His bank was well aware of the statistics about e-mail overload, and that too much information harms productivity. One study from Hewlett-Packard, for instance, found that workers constantly distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a temporary 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking a joint.

So Dresdner Kleinwort began searching for an alternative to e-mail, one that wouldn't be hijacked by employees asking their colleagues worldwide if whoever took Nigel's stapler could return it to his desk. The company is not alone. Many top business leaders have logged off as well, including the American investor Warren Buffett and Phones4U owner John Caudwell. The mayor of Boston, Tom Menino, is leading the cause in politics.

Whether at home or the office, all of our inboxes are overflowing. Even after spam filters have removed the obviously unnecessary pest mails, many of us are reeling under the sheer weight of new messages. In a recent poll at the IT news site Silicon.com, 33 per cent of respondents said they receive between 51 and 100 e-mails a day. In a similar poll two years ago, that figure was 23 per cent.

Invented in 1971 by the computer engineer Ray Tomlinson, e-mail now controls us, rather than us it. A recent study from AOL suggested that many people are increasingly addicted to e-mail, checking their messages while in the bathroom, at church or while driving. Researchers also report that between 10 and 50 per cent of work time is now spent using e-mail, which is having a huge impact on productivity.

Another study, cited in Gail Fann Thomas's 2006 article " Re-conceptualising E-Mail Overload" in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, found that the average worker had 2,483 inbox messages and 858 filed ones. This is hardly surprising. Recent figures from web portal Lycos reveal that one in 10 e-mail users in Britain receives more than 200 mails every day (including spam). As Lycos spokeswoman Stephanie Sanders warns: "UK internet users are in danger of reaching overload as they struggle to deal with out-of-control inboxes."

Dresdner Kleinwort's IT gurus weren't about to let the tail wag the dog. So they alerted several workgroups in the firm about a "wiki" service called Socialtext (www.socialtext.com). Once the employees grasped its potential, it spread around the firm like wildfire. Much like Wikipedia, Socialtext allows people to set up pages for specific projects, and invite anyone to collaborate: edit text, add comments, hold discussions, and link to other documents, graphics or internet sites. In short, it removed the need to send e-mails – something that everyone at Dresdner Kleinwort agreed had only caused confusion, with all the endless conversational threads and differing versions of documents. The company went so far as to issue an edict: don't send e-mails, use the wiki. By last October, Dresdner Kleinwort had set up its own proprietary wiki system, with 5,000 pages and over 2,500 users at the company's bases worldwide. Axel Thill, the head of e-commerce at Dresdner Kleinwort, says the wiki has helped cut down his e-mail use by 75 per cent. His colleagues report similar results.

It isn't just companies that are taking advantage of new technology to overcome e-mail overload. Charlene Li, vice president at US-based Forrester Research, has had great success using Google Docs & Spreadsheets, an online office system that allows you to collaborate on documents with friends and colleagues around the world.

Li uses Google Docs in all aspects of her personal life: for example, to co-ordinate summer camp with the parents of her children's friends. All the camp options, links and registration details are contained on a spreadsheet, but instead of e-mailing it back and forth, Li simply alerts the other parents to the online Google document, and everyone can view it or comment on it in a web browser.

Li also plays the keyboard in an after-hours Forrester staff band. Rather than resort to the usual flurry of e-mails to sort out the current playlist, she created a list on Google Docs. Band members can suggest songs, learn lyrics and generally keep up to date all online. Li says Google Docs has "definitely reduced the number of e-mails I have to send around."

Courtney Gibbons, a comic artist and mathematician, used Google Docs to compile the guest list for her wedding last year. "It was extremely helpful," she says, "especially when we let our parents get involved and help fill in the information (online)."

The idea that you can be more productive without e-mail has found favour in Hollywood. Ascendant Films, the production company behind 2006's Lucky Number Slevin, starring Bruce Willis and Lucy Liu, decided that when it came to e-mail, enough was enough. To manage production and co-ordinate financing for the film, the company turned to JotSpot ( www.jot.com), a site that lets you set up your own wiki (and is now owned by Google).

"Film financing and production involves many documents, such as schedules, budgets, and contracts, that are constantly changing and evolving, " says Robert Norton, finance specialist for Ascendant. "Up until now these documents have been transmitted by e-mail or fax, causing document overload and major version-itis. The JotSpot wiki offered the only easy and affordable way to keep us all on track and working off the latest version. It truly changed and improved the way we communicate."

The internet research firm Gartner Group predicts that wikis will become mainstream collaboration tools in at least half of companies by 2009. E-mail is also threatened by another mode of communication: instant messaging, or IM. It is popularly perceived as the preserve of teenagers – many of whom now actually refer to e-mail as "snail mail", the unflattering term given postal mail when e-mail first became popular. But IM has not gone unnoticed by people looking to streamline their communications.

Dennis Yang is one such person. He works at Techdirt (www.techdirt.com), a corporate news and analysis company. Yang rarely sees his co-workers, but stays in touch with them in real time via IM. He typically has around seven conversations going at any time. It lets him work anywhere, even his grandmother's living room.

"IM affords the ability to have a real conversation, as opposed to the staccato-style conversations that e-mail threads seem to become," he says. "Studies show that people on IM at work don't waste too much time chatting with friends, and their productivity gain would outweigh any socialising."

It would be an exaggeration to say that the days of e-mail are over, and that it has been replaced by wikis and other forms of communication. But the writing is surely on the wall.

The seven rules of mailing

* Create filters to only allow e-mail from known contacts or those working on projects with you. Send the rest of the e-mails to a "later" folder.

* Archive e-mails in folders, but trash the e-mails you don't need. Be ruthless.

* Colour-code messages into categories: "important", "urgent", "to do", "later", etc.

* Check your e-mail a maximum of three times a day. Remember: e-mail was a replacement for postal mail. You'd have checked that in the morning and dealt with it.

* Don't e-mail when you aren't clear about what you want or what you're trying say. You will only generate more messages when the recipient asks what you meant.

* Don't e-mail when you have nothing to add. Extraneous niceties only increase information overload.

* Don't e-mail when the exchange is over. Enough is enough.

The world of wiki

* Wikis are a potential solution to dealing with out-of-control levels of e-mail. You set up a page for a given project and allow friends and colleagues to collaborate on the document, which is accessed via a web browser. Rather than groups of people all e-mailing different amended versions of the document, one master "wiki" document is created, and people make updates directly. Members of the group are contacted when an update has been made. You can set one up at Google Docs (docs.google.com).

* The term "wiki" was coined in 1995 by its inventor, computer programmer Ward Cunningham, after the "wiki wiki" or "quick" shuttle buses at Honolulu airport. "I chose wiki-wiki as an alliterative substitute for 'quick' and thereby avoided naming this stuff 'quick-web'," he says. The most famous example of a wiki is the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org).

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