Summary : one of the most counterproductive usage of email is upward delegation. A polite way to say “passing the monkey to a colleague”. People kick into touch, send the problem, spare time and, in the end, all the work is being slowed down. Will the use of new tools be enough to get rid of such habits ? Yes because a shared problem has more chanced to find a solution, and faster. But if these new tools don’t come with a reflection on time allocation, decision making and the set up of new rules, routines or relevant processes, social tools may have a demultiplier effect and make the problem grow. A problem has more chances to be solved when shared but sharing does not mean a solution will be found nor the solution will be implemented.
Email is a plague for businesses but not because of itselft. While vilifying it is easy we should keep in mind that it is not the cause of all the communication and productivity problems we’re facing. The real cause is more likely to be found at the chair-keyboard interface. In other words, end users perfectly managed to make the most out of the nuisance potential of the tool. The tool is neutral but usages can be good or harmful. And, in this case, there has been an individual and collective slip-up.
That’s what makes me skeptical about the promise of replacing email with other tools, mainly social networks. If usages don’t improve we’ll end up facing exactly the same problems, if not more. So it’s urgent to, in addition to implementing new tools, rethink the way each one, at his own level, manages and shares information. As a matter of fact, if the volume of information is supposed to endlessly increase in the future, if it’s systematically shared and that the old habits survive (push, over-notification, sharing without targeting) we can even fear that things get much worse. Someone recently told me that “a good usage of email is better than a wrong usage of social networks”. But since nobody makes a good usage of email, something else has to be found.
If the wrong usages of email and their negative impact on businesses and employees are numerous, one of them is very interesting from a productivity and operations standpoint, even if it’s not the one that’s the most mentioned in usual indictments. That’s what I call the monkey syndrome. There’s a magical button in email : the “forward” one. It allows anyone to forward a message (and the problem that’s in) to anyone “for information”, “for advice”, “for decision”, “for anything”. Doing so has two major benefits : first, the sender covers himself, second it’s an easy way to spare time. Impossible to do anything or make any decision until the answer is received. So no risk of doing anything wrong, of exposing oneself to any risk. Since the person the monkey is passed to is usually a superior, this person receives monkeys from anyone, there are chances to postpone any action by a couple of days. Sometimes the problem even disappears in the mailbox Bermuda Triangle until someones comes back with the same problem…or find a way to help himself without asking anyone.
For anyone with a little bit of common sense, who know that the objective of the enterprise is to improve the flow and quality of it outcomes (Goldratt would have said the “throughput”…it’s easi that such an usage is deadly for any business.
Some thoughts before going further :
- it’s easy to see that email is, before all”, other’s todo list. And with a little pragmatism, a smart user can easily understand that he’d better do his own work first and, only then, deal with emails that are not his own problems.
- some clear-sighted leaders put upward delegation (and not email) at the top of the list of things to get rid of. There’s a famous story about Ben Verwayyen (Alcatel Lucent), Lou Gerstner also decided that one of the first things to do when he took over at IBM was to end up with “upward delegation”.Their purpose was not to lead the war against email but to improve people’s effectiveness by tackling what was not a technology problem but an organizational and management one.
So, let’s go back to social networks and the way they can help us stop passing the monkey.
If a problem is shared, it’s more likely to find a answer. Ok. First drawback : that’s not only what the one who passes the monkey wants (even if it’s what the organization needs). But, even if everyone has a positive attitude, there’s a second drawback. A peer or an expect can help someone solving a problem, what is a real benefit. But it supposes that the employee can propose a new approach (what may need a manager’s approval). There are also the cases when the problem is…to get an approval. In fact, without accountability, without better decision making processes, without empowerment, nothing will change. Things will even get worse for experts because if email is other’s to do list, with a social networking platform, others will much more numerous than before.
In fact, a common assumption lies behind this promise, a quite idealized one : “sharing is solving”. When something happens, let’s share it and the problem will be solved ! It works in two ways : sharing a good practice and thinking it will be reused, sharing a question and believing the answer will come.
Compared to the email problem, the cause is different. The email version of the monkey is clearly a way to kick int touch. The social version is linked to the belief that because one shares, because one relies on the collective, problems disappear. I don’t even mention how deceiving the promise becomes when it’s not kept. Bottom line, we may end up with more and more monkeys populating our social networks and desperate employees waiting for their problems to be solved. That would look like the “email plague to the power of n”.
So a problem that’s not shared is less likely to be solved. But sharing is not enough. We need someone wanting to tackle it. Someone able, authorized to do so. Even someone able to know that such a problem has been shared. That’s all about time management, autonomy and processes. We can imagine structures where a pool of experts is under the obligation of solving other’s problem. Things may also look like a reverse “idea box” : people share problems and the people who are supposed to be most relevant to solve them are alerted through a tags/analytics based system. We need to shift from serendipity to probability. We also need to think twice about social silos and critical mass : there are more chances to find someone who wants and is able to help in a 100 000 people network than a 2000 people one…and even more when everybody is on one single platform.
But I don’t want my message to be misunderstood : I’m not saying that’s not working. I’m only saying that changing tools is not enough and that when changing it (and even before) a reflection and action are needed on matters such as time allocation, autonomy and decision making, the system of the organization, personal routines and processes.
But if we keep up with the illusion that sharing alone is enough to get results through a kind of invisible hand, we may face huge disillusions.