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Why is it that the fraught subject of e-mail management gets so much coverage? There are probably dozens of reasons anyone can think of, but at the core of all of them is the often weary acceptance that we just can’t live without it.

Love it or hate it, we are going to have to learn not just to live with, but also to manage our e-mail more effectively.

It was probably with this in mind that HyperOffice, a provider of SaaS solutions for online collaboration, issued its recent white paper with possible solutions to managing the e-mail overload.

The bottom line and conclusion of the white paper -- by Shahab Kaviani,  VP of sales and marketing at  HyperOffice, and technology consultant James E. Gaskin, entitled From Email Bankruptcy to Business Productivity -- is that there are online collaboration tools available that probably manage the task of enterprise-wide communication better than e-mail can.

Misusing E-mail

And while HyperOffice makes no bones about the fact that it produces one such tool, the white paper does outline other solutions currently on the market, including Microsoft Exchange and Google Apps, while arguing that e-mail is not being used in business for the purpose it was originally intended for.

However, while avoiding the question as to what exactly this function originally was, it starts with the premise that the purpose of all technology is to enhance employee productivity and information management.

Dismissing the flippant suggestion by technology commentator and Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig that if you can’t manage the volume of e-mail coming through your business you might file for "e-mail bankruptcy," it outlines four different problems and offers four solutions that might be taken on board.

Four Categories Of E-mail

Undoubtedly Lessig was sitting in front of his computer on a Monday morning with an e-mail backlog as long as your arm when he jokingly suggested the "bankruptcy solution," but he did highlight a serious issue to which the HyperOffice offers solutions.

The first step is to divide your e-mails into four different categories:

  • Coordinating Schedules: Deciding upon common times for meetings and events
  • Document Collaboration: Working together on documents by sending them back and forth as attachments
  • Managing Tasks: Sending or getting tasks requests and updating status
  • Group Decisions: Using email to discuss issues or as a voting mechanism to build consensus

You will find, the paper suggests, that only half of your e-mails fall into the necessary communication category with the rest falling into one of the four categories above.

Four Problems, Four Solutions

And for each of the four categories and associated problems, the authors offer four different solutions using -- unsurprisingly -- online collaboration tools (while taking a moment, in a true white paper fashion, to promote HyperOffice's collaboration tool as well).

  1. For the problem of using e-mail to coordinate schedules, they suggest the use of shared calendars. Shared calendaring systems allow everyone to maintain a personal calendar and for groups to have group calendars.
  2. For the problem of document collaboration via e-mail, they suggest shared document collaboration systems. These are systems that allow companies to store and organize documents in a central online location where everyone can access them after going through a permission-based access system.
  3. For the problem of task management using e-mail, they suggest a shared task system. These are solutions that allow project managers to streamline task assignment and track progress. It is a central place where managers can create tasks or projects and assign responsibilities to team members.
  4. For the problem of group discussions and consensus building by e-mail, they suggest discussion forums. These would be places where where new discussion topics can be created and everyone can participate.

E-mail Chaos Avoided?

All in all, the authors conclude that online collaboration software is the way to solve all e-mail overload problems.

There is no fundamental problem with the analysis and solutions offered, even if all statements should be covered by good enterprise 2.0 practice anyway. While there is no argument with the contention that managing e-mails is good and not managing them is bad, the analysis really needs to be pushed out further.

No matter how many collaboration tools you use (or have at your disposal and don't use), the underlying problem is in the organization itself. Yes, the tools have to be great for people to like them and use them. However, it is largely about your overall enterprise 2.0 strategy and goals.

Collaboration technology is not a panacea for e-mail (or any other) chaos in your business. No tool will be successful without thought-out processes around it.