We have all experienced the trials and tribulations of the email inbox -- it applies across the board from personal to work accounts. The amount of time spent de-cluttering our inboxes has been well documented.

After a recent brush with thousands of email deadwood that surfaced in my inbox, I believe the solution lies in a combination of individual actions and an expanded approach to the email systems that exist today. 

I reinstalled my MacBook’s operating system the other day, which meant I had to reinstall and reconfigure my private email account. The results? The discovery of thousands of emails that had gathered, dust-like, under one of my addresses. It seems that my main private account wasn't set up to delete my messages once I'd retrieved them via POP/SMTP. The upshot being that all the emails that collected on the server for years came along like deadwood when I made the switch from SMTP/POP to IMAP.

None of this would have happened if I'd configured everything correctly in the first place, but that’s not the issue at hand. I’d be the first to admit that I’m an information junkie -- I take from as many sources as I can. My job centers on communication and getting hold of knowledge earlier than anyone else. I used this as an opportunity to examine the thousands of deadwood emails in more detail, to look at what didn’t fall under “useful” or “interpersonal” categories of email exchange.

Notifications, Not News

The majority of my emails turned out to be notifications, not news. By that I mean things like: messages from my bank informing me that a transaction had been done and that details were available via online banking; messages from Twitter telling me about new followers; Facebook announcements notifying me that one of my posts had been shared someone.

Some of the notifications were useful, others were totally unnecessary. If you don’t deactivate them immediately, they'll continue to clog up your inbox for no good reason. Xing provides a great example: Every time XYZ likes a post on my wall or shares it, Xing sends me an email, but it never says which link XYZ liked or shared. If they alerted me to a comment on my wall, included the comment in the email and allowed me to reply directly from my mail client, then it could be useful. That feature exists in IBM Notes and Connections – it’s called Embedded Experience. And as I said, there are useful notifications out there. I get sent a daily email summary of what’s been happening in the social networks I use for work. It’s a useful, condensed overview that benefits me. Notifications can be an important part of your incoming mail if they deliver relevant information and allow you to respond directly -- if not, deactivate.

Like everyone, I also get a lot of promotional emails. Amazon is just one of the many companies that regularly send me special offers. Sometimes they’re useful, like when they give me information that I think is valuable (e.g. that my favorite author has published a new book). But mostly I find the in-your-face promotional emails downright tedious and now make a point of unsubscribing from them immediately. They’d do much better to send me personalized, high-quality emails (content marketing, anyone?), but that’s another topic for another day.

Social networks are no strangers to promotions flooding my inbox regularly with emails (see Xing above). The messages from groups are pretty easy to ignore, but preventing personal invitations to things like events is not so straightforward. You either have to deselect the option “XYZ can send me messages” or go whole hog and de-friend or disconnect the person in question.

And let's not forget good old spam: dull, uninspired advertising that I may or may not have asked for but definitely don’t want. Your best bet here is to unsubscribe or make a point of marking the stuff as spam as soon as it appears in your inbox. And we mustn’t forget the eternal challenge of your email system classifying as spam messages that aren’t anything of the sort -- there’s no escape from the mind-numbing task of checking the junk mail folder.

What’s Better: Email Newsletters or RSS Readers?

As I said, I’m someone who hoovers up information. Email newsletters were once my information source of choice: They filled my inbox to bursting. 

The newsletter I value the most is the one from IDG’s relevANTS -- it keeps an eye on what I read and where I click in a newsletter, and uses the information to learn about my interests. It then uses that to produce a daily personalized newsletter that contains 10 to 15 abstracts, and I usually find two or three interesting. Not the best batting average and the system could definitely improve, but still...

The other newsletters are more of a burden. It’s hard to find the interesting gold nugget among the reams of information they contain. This raises an important question: at what point will tools like RSS readers overtake email as the most sensible medium for transporting information? Should the information be pushed to recipients, or should they pull it down as and when it’s needed?

Both options have pros and cons. I’m more inclined to favor the “pull” option and have subscribed to and categorized most of my information sources in the Feedly RSS reader, giving me access when I want it. I am aware that notifying recipients by email will -- as a rule -- generate more attention for the source in question.

Last but not least we have “normal” email in all its different forms. Things like receipts and invoices which need to be stored for future reference, dialogue between users, weighed down by attachments that would be better shared rather than emailed. Old habits die hard, and most of us are much more used to sending than sharing.

The Email Client: Same as 20 Years Ago

Do the messages I've talked about ring any bells? These issues are essentially the same for business and private emails, bar a few minor variations (e.g., concerning attachments). Above and beyond the various forms of receiving notifications and messages and the different ways of stemming the rising tide of emails, there is surely more that can be done to improve the way we handle our inboxes.

Looking back over the past 20 years, it seems to me that email still basically works in the same way as it always has. Messages arrive in your inbox, you deal with them there and then shift them into a folder (usually manually). I’d argue that even Google Mail has failed to revolutionize this standard model. All it’s done is swap folders for labels, and develop a system that can prioritize emails. Still, at least that’s something. Plus, Google Now offers an interesting approach to providing relevant information about, say, appointments in your calendar.

Almost every email system allows you to define rules for what happens with which emails, but who manages to keep up with that for any length of time? True innovations that reduce the workload that emails create have yet to hit cyberspace, but those are exactly the kinds of solutions we need because email still dominates our working day (source: Vernetzte Organisation 2013, published by the Cooperation Systems Center at Universität der Bundeswehr in Munich, Germany).

So what technological improvements can be made to stem the tide of incoming emails? Manually sorting emails is of the most unproductive activities ever invented -- we need better support. Systems could automatically assign tags (keywords) or monitor user behavior to learn which tags to assign and when. The tags would then have to be combined with a powerful search function that makes it easy for users to find the information they’re looking for. Users would have to develop trust in this partially or fully automated form of email archiving -- the best way to ensure that happens is to give them a system that delivers reliable search results.

Email of the Future: Creating Intelligent Context

Email search functions have a lot of room for improvement. According to a McKinsey report, knowledge workers spend 28 percent of their working week dealing with and searching for emails. One big step forward would be if the system could reliably list all the emails that correspond to a specific search term and thread. Let’s say I’ve got a teleconference in my calendar about an upcoming project. It would be great if I could access all the relevant information contained in my email account. But it would be even better if I could also get hold of information from other, connected systems -- the minutes of our last meeting from the DMS, the details of all conference participants from my social network or the CRM system, the latest project details from the project-management system, and so on.

We’re going to have to completely rethink the definition of an email client. The client of the future won't just be limited to email: It will be a knowledge hub that collects not only emails but also tasks, notifications and information from numerous other systems. It will go beyond a simple message center to become a system of engagement. 

In many cases, email is the ideal communication tool. But when it comes to storing knowledge and collaborating, it falls flat. The way to address this problem would be to integrate and possibly even embed social software. One guiding principle should be to give users the right tool for the right job. Another should be to help users work more efficiently instead of leaving them to manage their inbox alone.

For that to happen, we need a paradigm shift, one that moves us away from ignorant email and towards a powerful system of engagement. Here are the top ten things I think we need from the next generation of email systems:

  1. The email of the future should be a personal system of engagement that helps users manage their daily tasks as efficiently as possible.
  2. Email should bring together audio and video functions, and include features from social software and instant messaging services.
  3. Other systems should “hijack” email and allow users to work directly in their mail client.
  4. Email systems must stop making users sort their messages manually. The technology should be highly capable of learning from users about how to tag emails and file them away (if necessary in a way that complies with legal requirements).
  5. Manually setting up folder systems is out. Searching for emails, threads and specific events needs to be simple and reliable.
  6. The email system of the future should automatically create context for a given event and provide users with relevant information from emails, social networks and other systems connected to their account.
  7. Cognitive systems should act as the back end for the email system of the future and help create the context mentioned above. They should support us and make our life easier, but still allow us to make personal decisions.
  8. This one’s a no-brainer: email has to be available on every device, from smartphones and tablets, to PCs and laptops.
  9. With users increasingly accessing emails on the move, “normal” email clients should become simpler and more user friendly.
  10. All technological advances aside, stemming the rising tide of emails still requires us to take individual action and find better ways of working.

I’d like to really stress that last point. Technological innovations will open up brand new possibilities for using email systems to manage the tasks contained in the messages we receive. But in spite (or perhaps even because) of that, we have to keep on improving the way we as people manage our emails. The only way we can avoid drowning in the flood is if we collaborate with technology.

Title image by TAGSTOCK1 (Shutterstock)