A recession: Perfect time to implement social software

We’re in recession. The global economy has bronchitis and is coughing up dead and dying banks all over the place. Governments are scrambling to put together bailout plans. The housing market has zombified, with house values plummeting and foreclosures sky-rocketing. Consumers have no disposable income and are struggling with food and fuel prices. Businesses everywhere are pulling their horns in, wondering how – and if – they are going to survive.

Now, more than ever, it is essential that businesses reconsider how they communicate, collaborate and converse, which means that the most important thing they can do is invest in social tools. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, Suw, what are you smoking?” But bear with me here.

Recessions mean you have to do more with less. You can’t afford to have your people wasting time, even unintentionally, using inefficient tools or sticking with bad habits. For many, that means that email is a liability. As I found when I was researching my article for the Guardian on email, some people in business are checking their email every five minutes. Given that it takes some 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after being interrupted by a ‘new mail’ alert, that’s over 8 hours wasted each week.

Of course, that’s not the only way that time is frittered away in the course of day to day activities. Using email to collaborate on documents is astonishingly wasteful, compared to working on a wiki. We lack studies that specifically look at how email is used in this way and how long it takes to collaborate via email attachment compared to on a wiki page, but my experience is that using a wiki really cuts down on the time and effort required to co-author a document.

Then there’s duplication of effort. I did some work with a company recently who had started to use social tools to improve collaboration. One unexpected side effect was the discovering that there were two teams, in different locations, both trying to solve the same problem. Once they knew that they were both working on the same thing, they could share resources, information and expertise.

Institutional knowledge also often gets lost: people end up re-learning what others already know, because there’s just no communication between them. That’s especially true of day-to-day knowledge which is important, but not the sort of thing that gets encoded into documentation (which is out of date as soon as it’s published anyway). Opening up the conversation by encouraging people to do their work on a wiki is a great way to capture information as it happens. It’s not about cataloguing it after the fact, but keeping info alive as a side-effect of just getting on with things. In a recession, you can’t afford to be reinventing the wheel all the time.

A recession is also not a great time to just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. But businesses don’t need to experiment, they just need to work with people who truly understand social tools. More than anything, businesses need to invest in their people, in understanding how they work right now and how they could be working.

Personally, I fail to see how any business right now can afford not to address the inefficiencies inherent in their organisation’s existing comms tools. Now, more than ever, businesses need to raise their game, improve communication, improve collaboration, improve conversation. But in this climate, they can’t afford to get it wrong – there’s no slack in the system anymore. Luckily, there’s no need to get it wrong. There are some great people out there who can help you do it right.

When politeness gets in the way

Back on 2005, Ben Hammersley did a talk at Reboot called “Etiquette and the Singularity” in which he argued, amongst other things, that technology is rude and that it takes time for us to negotiate a set of manners around each new piece of technology as it arrives in our lives. The audio is still available and it’s still recommended listening.

I want to flip this idea on its head for a moment, because it’s not just technology that breaks etiquette. Sometimes, good manners break technology. Specifically: too much politeness breaks email.

Even ignoring spam and bacn, only a small percentage of our email is actually useful or interesting. Of the email that’s not spam or bacn, but also isn’t interesting, there’s an unexamined class of message that has largely gone unexamined: the polite but unnecessary response. These are email that we send purely because it would seem rude not to.

Once a substantive email has been sent, and a substantive response received, manners kick in and the email conversation devolves into a back and forth of polite replies that aren’t really achieving anything. They are the email equivalent of “Why, thank you!” “No, thank you!” “Oh, but really, thank you!”

The problem, I think, is that we transfer our manners from in-person conversation to email, and the change in context makes for discomfort, because all of the subconscious indicators that the conversation is over are missing. A conversation that would be concise in person becomes verbose in email as each participant tries to ensure that they have been adequately polite without any idea how to tell if they have been polite enough.

It’s a behaviour I’ve noticed in myself – responses I send not because they have any informational content at all, but because I don’t want the recipient to think I’m being rude by not acknowledging their email. They tend to be very short, made up of phrases such as “You’re welcome!”, “No problem!” or “Thanks again!” Sadly, such exchanges can become absurdly long if both people exhibit this behaviour.

In person, we can rely on phatic communication and body language to bookend our conversations. We can open a conversation with a flick of our eyebrows and close it with a smile. Email has no equivalent, and textual versions lack sufficient clarity to be reliable.

Overpoliteness is not a behaviour easy to change because at its root is the fear of social humiliation, or of accidentally insulting or upsetting someone else. But we do need to negotiate a different set of rules for what is polite in email and because it’s eating time without us even realising. As I wrote in the Guardian, it takes on average 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after you’ve been interrupted by email, so the cost of each pointless email is:

Total time cost = T(sw) + T(srec) + T(rr) + T(rrec)


T(sw) = time taken for the sender to write the email
T(srec) = time taken for the sender to recover their train of thought after sending the email
T(rr) = time taken for the recipient to read the email
T(rrec) = time taken for the recipient to recover their train of thought after interruption of reading the email.

If we assume it takes a modest 30 seconds to read, write, send and file the email and it’s 64 seconds to recover train of thought, that means it’s 188 seconds for the whole process, just over 3 minutes. Of course, if the recipient responds with another email, we start this all over again – that’s another 3 minutes down the drain. It all adds up. You could easily end up wasting hours each week just being needlessly polite.

This isn’t to say that I advocate being rude by email! Email’s a difficult medium to communicate well through, and many people cause more problems than they intend because they failed to consider how their words might be misread. But we do need to send less phatic email.

I wonder if one reason for this urge to send phatic email is that we have no reliable way of knowing if our email has been received and read. Because we want to know that about the emails we send, we assume others want to know that about the emails they send (they probably do) and so we feel a need to acknowledge everything. If email could be just a little bit smarter and could do this acknowledgement for us – although not by sending a read receipt which would simply be yet more bacn! Maybe if it marked a sent mail as ‘opened’ that’d be all the indictor we’d need.

The oft unacknowledged truth about email is that we’re still trying to negotiate an appropriate etiquette for it. But instead of thrashing our way through it like a bull in a china shop, we need to stop and think a little about what it is that we’re doing, and why we’re doing it in the first place.

The Guardian: Breaking the email compulsion

I have an article in The Guardian today (in the paper and online) about email, how it’s getting out of control and what we can do about it. It contains some of my thinking on email, operant conditioning, and how social tools can help us reduce the amount of email we send (and therefore, hopefully, receive). Here’s a taster:

Back in the early 1990s, email was a privilege granted only to those who could prove they needed it. Now, it has turned into a nuisance that’s costing companies millions. We may feel that we have it under control, but not only do we check email more often than we realise, but the interruptions caused are more detrimental than was previously thought. In a study last year, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.

It had been assumed that email doesn’t cause interruptions because the recipient chooses when to check for and respond to email. But Jackson found that people tend to respond to email as it arrives, taking an average of only one minute and 44 seconds to act upon a new email notification; 70% of alerts got a reaction within six seconds. That’s faster than letting the phone ring three times.

Time out
Added to this is the time people spend with their inbox. A July 2006 study by ClearContext, an email management tools vendor, surveyed 250 users and discovered that 56% spent more than two hours a day in their inbox. Most felt they got too much email – by January 2008, 38% of respondents received more than 100 emails a day – and that it stopped them from doing other things.

Dr Karen Renaud, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, and her colleagues at the University of the West of Scotland discovered that email users fall into three categories: relaxed, driven and stressed. “The relaxed group don’t let email exert any pressure on their lives,” Renaud says. “They treat it exactly the way that one would treat the mail: ‘I’ll fetch it, I’ll deal with it in my own time, but I’m not going to let it upset me’.” The second group felt “driven” to keep on top of email, but also felt that they could cope with it. The third group, however, reacted negatively to the pressure of email. “That causes stress,” says Renaud, “and stress causes all sorts of health problems.”

Read the rest on The Guardian website or in the paper.

Thanks to everyone who helped me out with this article, especially Tom Stafford who was my original inspiration!

Two dates for your diary

As promised last week, I’ve got the dates for my next two Fruitful Seminars in September. The third seminar is still up for grabs, so go and vote now!

The Email Problem and How To Solve It
Wednesday 3rd September 2008

As we move towards a knowledge-based economy, email is becoming an unavoidable part of business life. But not only do some people have to deal with hundreds of emails a day, many of them unnecessary, the ‘always on’ culture of the Blackberry means they can never escape their inbox.

Reducing people’s dependence on email is easier said than done, however. Arbitrary rules like ‘No Email Days’ or tight inbox limits just add to people’s stress and don’t reduce the amount of email people send. This is because the problem with email is psychological, not technical, so such solutions treat only the symptoms and not the cause.

Social media expert Suw Charman-Anderson will take a look what’s at the root of the email problem, and how it can be solved using social tools. During the day you will hear an alternative view of email and will be able to discuss the issues you face in your own company. By the end of the seminar you will have a thorough understanding of the behavioural problems related to email and a clear set of next steps to take.

Who should come?

  • CXO executives
  • IT executives
  • Managers
  • Team leaders
  • Decision makers
  • Social media practitioners
  • Social media vendors

Or anyone in situations similar to these:

  • You are responsible for managing email infrastructure and have problems such as over-full inboxes or unnecessary file duplication across accounts.
  • You have observed poor ’email health’ amongst team members, perhaps including obsessive email checking coupled with delays in processing email.
  • You are concerned about unhealthy patterns of email use across your business and related inefficient use of IT resources.
  • You are an executive or manager who just can’t cope with all your email, much of which is a waste of your time, and you want a better way to work.

Making Social Tools Ubiquitous
Wednesday 10th September 2008

You may have heard that social tools – such as wikis, blogs, social bookmarking and social networking – can help you improve business communications, increase collaboration and nurture innovation. And with open source tools, you can pilot projects easily and cheaply. But what do you do if people won’t use them? And how do you grow from a pilot to company-wide use?

Social media expert Suw Charman-Anderson will take a practical look at the adoption of social tools within your business. During the day you will create a scalable and practical social media adoption strategy and discuss your own specific issues with the group. By the end of the seminar you will have a clear set of next steps to apply to your own collaborative tools project.

Who should come?

  • CXO executives
  • managers
  • team leaders
  • decision makers
  • social media practitioners
  • social media vendors

Or anyone in situations similar to these:

  • You have already installed some social tools for internal communications and collaboration, but aren’t getting the take-up you had hoped for.
  • You have successfully completed a pilot and want to roll-out to the rest of the company.
  • You want to start using social tools and need a strategy for fostering adoption.
  • You sell social software or services and want to understand how your clients can foster adoption of your tool.

If you want to be kept up to date with Fruitful Seminar news and discussion, then please do join our Google Group. And don’t forget to sign up to Lloyd Davis’ social media masterclass on 16 July!

First Fruitful Seminar a success; three more in the pipeline

I’m delighted to say that the first Fruitful Seminar on the adoption of social media in enterprise, Making Social Tools Ubiquitous, last Friday was a bit of a hit! I had a fabulous time, and I got some great feedback on the day, so I’m looking forward to running it again. Quite a few people said that they were interested in coming but couldn’t make it that particular day, so I am going to repeat the same seminar, probably on 10th September. Put the date in your diary and keep an eye out for the registration page to go live!

I am also going to run two other seminars in September. One will be on The Email Problem: Email used to be a fantastically useful communications tool, but in recent years it has become more of a burden, with people struggling to read and respond to all of the email they receive. Some companies have tried “No Email Days”, but these put off the problem, they don’t solve it. If, however, you start to examine email as a psychological problem instead of a technological one, different solutions become apparent. This seminar, The Email Problem And How To Solve It will take an innovative look at email and the different ways that social media can reduce its use.

This leaves me with a slot free, and I’d like to put my seminar ideas to a popular vote. These are the options:

1. Social Media in Internal Communications: How can internal comms and HR departments use social media to help them effectively communicate with their constituency? How can you ensure that people have the information they need, when they need it? And how do you engage with your constituency and collect meaningful feedback?

2. Giving It Away – Open IP in Business: You’ve got some intellectual property, but how do you maximise its value to your business? Can giving it away actually earn you money? What is ‘Creative Commons’ and how do you choose a licence?

3. Using Social Tools in Journalism: Forget old-school arguments about bloggers vs. journalism – reality is much more interesting than that! How can you use social tools to organise your own information and help yourself work more efficiently? How can you engage with your audience using social tools? And how do you run a networked journalism project? (Maybe, just maybe, I might be able to persuade a famous journo-blogger to help me present this one!)


And don’t forget, Lloyd Davis’ seminar, Mastering Social Media, is on 16 July and still has some places left, so sign up soon!