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Email is Most Useful When Improving a Process that Existed Before Email

August 22nd, 2016 · 13 comments


Connectivity Contradictions

Recently, I’ve been collecting stories from people who held the same type of job before and after the introduction of email. Something that struck me as I sorted through these recollections is their variety.

Email was a miracle to some.

For example, I talked to a woman who has spent many years in mergers and acquisitions. These deals, it turns out, require large contracts to be received and sent with urgency at unexpected times.

Before email, this meant weekends camped out at the office.

“If I was expecting a new version of a merger agreement, I would have to stand outside the fax room waiting for my 200-page document and then call to ask the other side to re-fax any missing pages,” my source recalled.

“If there was even a possibility that I would be needed, it made no sense to go home…people would sleep at the office.”

With email, these same urgent documents could suddenly reach her anywhere — greatly reducing time wasted squatting by the warmth of a fax modem and increasing time with her family.

“Email has been a plus,” she concludes.

But email was also a curse to many others. 

One teacher I spoke with, for example, told me about how the arrival of email made teachers at her school suddenly available to parents in a way they never had been before.

The school eventually instituted a policy that all such emails must be answered within 48 hours.

“Email exploded,” my source recalled. “My planning period was spent reading and answering emails…forget planning. [It became] a huge distraction from the already very difficult job of teaching.”

A Useful Heuristic

How do we make sense of these contradictions?

As I sorted through more stories like the above an interesting pattern emerged.

Email seems to be at its best when it directly replaces a professional behavior or process that existed before email’s rise.

For example, in mergers and acquisitions, the urgent and hard to predict delivery of complicated contracts has long been a necessary and important behavior. Sending these documents by email is much easier than relying on fax machines.

On the other hand, email seems to be at its worst when it helps instigate the sudden arrival of a new behavior or process that didn’t exist before.

In teaching, for example, pre-email parents didn’t have nor did they expect ubiquitous access to their children’s teachers. There was no pressing pedagogical or parental need for such access.

Once teachers got email addresses, however, this new behavior emerged essentially ex nihilo and began to cause problems.

On reflection, this heuristic makes sense…

  • If a behavior or process has been around for a long time in a given profession, it probably serves a useful purpose. Therefore, if a technology like email can make it strictly more efficient/easy, then it’s a clear win.
  • By contrast, when email helps instigate a new behavior or process, this development tends to occur in a bottom up fashion. That is, no one identifies in advance the new behavior or process as being something that’s useful — it’s instead driven by in-the-moment convenience and happenstance. (For more on this idea of unguided emergence see Leslie Perlow’s discussion of “cycles of responsiveness” in Sleeping with Your Smartphone.) This is not a great way to evolve professional practices, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the results are often exhausting and counterproductive to those forced to live with them.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t develop new behaviors and processes in our professional lives. But we should be wary of those that emerge without our explicit consent. Email, in this accounting, should be a source of concern not because it’s intrinsically bad, but because it’s so easy and convenient that it tends to encourage the emergence of these new unguided and often draining behaviors.

13 thoughts on “Email is Most Useful When Improving a Process that Existed Before Email

  1. As a college swimming coach I can relate to both sides of the aisle. Email has made recruiting easier in the way it made mergers and acquisitions easier…but has increased the connectivity to parents much the same way as it did for the teacher. Cal: As a professor, I am sure you can relate – isn’t it amazing how often we hear from parents of college students instead of their adult children? While it doesn’t relate directly to Deep Work, perhaps that is a topic you cover in a witty blog post at some point!

  2. Bill says:

    Great job Cal. Keep exploring this issue and unwinding these issues. Excellent insight.

  3. Don’t misuse the power of e-mail in today’s connectivity. Vital and confidential information is sent through this channel. Exploring the best and the most reliable way of using e-mail is highly recommended. Thanks for sharing this one!

  4. Ahmad Masrahi says:

    This is kind of related to the concept of jobs to be done (JTBD) by Clayton Christensen.

  5. HERB ROBLIN says:

    I can certainly relate to the M&A respondent but take you back even further to our communication at IBM where we used inter-office memos that were couriered to Head Office then re-couriered to other branches. We thought that we were on Cloud 9 when we went to a precursor of email called PROFS back in the late 70s early 80s.

    Unless there is a critical situation I now only access my corporate email during “normal business hours. Sans souci for sure.

  6. Vishakha says:

    I agree with you. Do not miss use
    he email. Its an important part nowdays. Try not to send and accept spam messages its going on regular basis. I would like to share in today’s world animation is also important I have craze too know how it has done. Might be
    many of u had same question for u
    Animation Notes

  7. Roz says:

    There’s a big assumption here that doesn’t feel made out yet: Bottom up-driven process changes to work are usually negative / value-destructive (because they emerge without explicit consent of the workers)

    Lots of progress is accidental or unintentional, often driven by technological change and its application to unintended environments.

    And who’s to say the workers’ view is the best vantage point for usefulness/value creation. Eg I’m sure parents see increased access to teachers as improving educational outcomes of their children (not saying this is true, but who’s to say the teacher knows best here either)

  8. Micheal A says:

    The recent transformation in our technology now place more values to email. As far as I’m concern, there are little things you can do now without email. Thanks for this post

  9. I wonder if the general distinction — between useful extension of prior function and not useful new expectation created by the computers “well you can” power — doesn’t apply to lots of things that computers do.

  10. courses says:

    Thank you for this awesome post. I’m learning to much from.

  11. Palashtd says:

    Your thinking is absolutely right. If any person knows about improving email process, definitely they will be able to improve email performance.
    Thanks for sharing helpful information for us.

  12. Arjan Broere says:

    Great point.

    Sometimes ‘the medium is the message’ may mean that we try to use a medium in ways that are not useful. So sharing information via email or making sure someone is informed usually will work while trying to cooperate via email or have an argument usually worsens matters.

    In that line of thought it would also mean that if you treat an email as a digital letter that some attention to crafting a decent email is necessary. There are conventions and etiquette rules that help correspondence.

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