How CIOs can quell email overload by adopting true transparency

When an NYU sophomore accidentally launched the Reply-All-Calypse, it proved that true transparency is key to preventing email overload.

Picture it: You've just returned from vacation or a conference. The first thing you do is open your email -- to find approximately 700 soul-crushing emails awaiting your review. We all dread that moment of email overload. And the worst part? Only a small percentage of those messages actually need your attention.

Wendy SchuchartWendy Schuchart

Those "ham" emails get lost in a veritable crush of well-meaning spam -- and I'm not referring to offers from a Nigerian prince. I'm referring to the meaningless Reply Alls that have clogged not only the company's network servers but also the attention spans of every professional working there. For instance, have you seen Bill's blue mug? Also, could everyone please remember that the cafeteria refrigerator is cleaned out on the fourth Friday of every month? You get the idea.

I've seen various surveys that all say essentially the same thing: About 40% of the average workday is spent dealing with emails -- either sending, reading or sorting. The same survey estimated that a third of that time was wasted on either pointless information or email overload. I'd actually say that's pretty optimistic. The problem, of course, is that technology makes it really, really easy to abuse the system.

Some companies try to eliminate the problem through governance processes. Back-end scripts can be deployed that limit the number of recipients on an email or restrict permissions for mailing group lists. Some CIOs even implement a restriction on the source of the problem -- they remove or disable the Reply All button in Outlook.

At my last role in a Fortune 500 enterprise company, the CIO opted to do just that, citing bureaucracy and inefficiency as the reasoning behind the restriction. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished -- the organization's employees balked at the change. They were hurt by the implication that they needed to be policed and guarded. They viewed the policy change as a message that the IT department felt they didn't even know how to do something as simple as email. People bucked against the decision by using the keyboard command or the menu choice for Reply All (neither of which were disabled), almost as a point of pride.

The world will not end with a bang, but with a continuous string of Reply Alls.

Did the policy change make a difference in the company's email culture? I honestly don't know -- there was no true transparency in the action, so we never saw metrics or any communications to show how this change could help save overall productivity or real money for the company. To the employees, the move felt like just another arbitrary way that the corporate overlords were impeding workflow.

This week, New York University (NYU) experienced an email overload nightmare now referred to as the Reply-All-Calypse. It seems that an innocent gaffe in choice of email lists was exposed when an NYU sophomore accidentally hit Reply All and spammed the entire student body with an email to his mom. More students chimed in, with students replying to all 40,000 recipients with inspirational quotes, random quips, philosophical questions ("Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck?") and a photo of actor Nicolas Cage.

Each of those emails replicated into 40,000 individual email accounts. The email servers ground to a crawl until the admins pulled the plug on the list a few hours into the free-for-(reply-)all. It seems that the world will not end with a bang, but with a continuous string of Reply Alls.

Of course, this was an accident with the list server, but it's an amplification of the daily email overload we all experience through Reply Alls. Removing that temptation isn't going to cure the issue, however. About four months after my old CIO removed the Reply All button, a well-meaning new hire sent out an 11 MB PDF to approximately 400 managers and directors. Not only did it grind the mail servers to a halt for two hours, but it also caused every recipient's email box to max out in capacity. None of the company leaders could receive new emails until the owners went in and cleared out that file. Work literally ground to a halt at the higher levels as leaders tried to recover emails that were bounced during the fiasco.

I don't really blame the CIOs who lean on technology to solve this problem, but they might be missing a lower common denominator. There's an opportunity to effect change at the level of organizational culture. The NYU students interpreted the Reply-All-Calypse as a harmless exploit. When your staff emails a note to someone sitting 20 feet away, they justify it through the lack of a paper trail. Email feels like a free and green solution -- no paper or gas used to deliver messages!

As even an entry-level data center tech knows, free computing is an illusion. However, the users have no real view into the true cost of additional emails -- for instance, the greenhouse gases created by an ever-expanding data center, or the bump in the cloud computing bill while the system chugged through a stream of meaningless information. These are things that weigh heavily on a CIO's mind but are invisible to the user base.

There are many CIO tricks to managing email overload -- whether it's the Reply All button or shutting down two-way email list servers -- and although those are a start, the one component that's missing from many of these strategies is true transparency. That starts by educating the person and preventing the spam before it happens. Open a dialogue with your user base. Make sure they understand the actual per-email cost -- be it productivity, server time or storage space -- of each and every email. Communicate your ROI and cost-benefit analysis. Trust them to be the intelligent, talented workforce that drives your company. The problem of email overload truly exists between the keyboard and the back of the chair, and it won't change until the people in the chairs understand the impact of those behaviors.

What do you think? What are your tricks for preventing email overload? The comments section below is waiting to engage a discussion.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Wendy Schuchart, Site Editor. For midmarket IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ciomidmarket.

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