ComEc Approach to Email

The overhead of communication systems is sometimes a little recognized overhead cost of doing business. The growth of email in the absence of well recognized standards for the use of email has led to clogging what can be a very effective communication.


Since the communication infrastructure and processes are the critical enablers for organizations to be able to respond in real time to threats and opportunities this is a central business problem for any formal organization.


Without community agreed upon standards, the ease and low cost of message sending naturally creates a polluted communication environment that hinders rather than helps the communication processes.


Communication Ecology suggests that is useful to consider communication as composed of discrete acts of information exchange. An email sent or received is an exchange. As such it can be considered within the context of a value received and a value given for the sender and the receiver.


When the value received for both parties is greater than the value given, the exchange is sustainable. When the value received is less than the value given, it tends to lead to expensive communication systems that can only be maintained with exogenous energy supplied.


Systems that require extra energy to thrive are much less sustainable.


The currency of communication systems can be thought of as attention. The concept of a society defined by attention scarcity is becoming common place. Email senders usually do not appreciate that every message sent implicity demands the receiver's "paying" attention.


The cost of this payment must be less than the value received by opening, reading, and if appropriate, responding to the message.


How might this approach help in fixing the email problem?


The fundamental email problem derives from the fact that while it is the lowest cost method of communication for the sender, the expense saved by the sender, is paid for by the receiver. When the value received is not at least equal to value given at each interaction, the system becomes dysfunctional.


To set up a meeting


In my experience the greatest number of emails are sent and received to set up meetings. When receivers "reply all" to scheduling issues, the pollution problem explodes. It can take 10 to 15 back and forths to set a time that works for more than 4 people. My impression is that three people meetings require much less overhead.


The task is to find an appropriate time for a gathering. The lowest cost act for the meeting convener is to send out a "when are you available" email. But this approach shifts cost to the desired attendees.


To broadcast information to a large number of people


Again, the cost to the sender is very low. My experience is that mass emails sent to anyone except for people with whom there is a previous power or trust based relationship are useless. They give the appearance of sending information, but in fact the information never gets to the appropriate party.



To co-ordinate logistics


With a well defined team, that truly shares a common purpose, email can be very effective, if used carefully. The problem is that this will only work if there is a reasonable expectation that the email will be read WITHIN the APPROPRIATE PERIOD OF TIME. The value of information is time determined. Logistic information sometimes needs to be acted upon within minutes, hours, days or weeks. If there is no action required, the value of the information in email form is much lower.


The potential benefit of email



It can make a knowledge worker much more productive.

Once a standards based email protocol has been established it can eliminate a lot of expensive, but unproductive, use of time.


In addition, if the primary value created is symbolic analysis - either the manipulation of visual or word symbols, being able to effectively use 10 or 30 minutes at a time can work well to increase productivity. Ten minutes at the appropriate time can save three hours three or four hours later, or three days if not received in time.


It can also allow team members to move forward on their parts of a project, on their own time. It has the potential of creating a creative infrastructure that is more similar to massive parallel processing than main frame batch processing.


For management, email can be a great way to get information from the edges of the organization


To take advantage of organizational opportunities and identify organizational threats, it is very helpful to get exposure to activity at the edges of the organizations. A customer complaint, quickly recognized and acted upon, turns a bug into a feature. Not only by disarming the threat, but in revealing a potential systemic problem that can be solved.


An example from the commercial world may illustrate the point. Recently I went to a Starbucks, picked up a brochure sponsored by HP describing a recycling opportunity for old computers and printers. I tried to use the service described. Found it seriously sub optimal. Because of my "trust" in the Starbucks brand, I wrote them an email telling them of the problem. Within 48 hours, I received a personal response from someone.


I don't know, or really care, about the follow up at Starbucks. But at least for me, the cost, in time and focus, of writing and sending the email was worth the value given by a personal response. From the organizations point of view, it is possible that this communication alerted Starbucks to a situation that they were probably not aware of the potential bad effect distributing this brochure had on the Starbucks brand.


The result from the organization's point of view was two fold. First they increased this customer's trust in the brand. But second, by responding respectfully in an appropriate period of time, they have recruited a volunteer "brand" watcher. Even if I don't communicate with them again for years, if you multiply my experience by a couple of thousand, Starbucks has increased it's business intelligence network at a minimal cost.