The two classes of organizational email overload engagements

The two classes of organizational email overload engagements

By now I’ve worked with a long list of companies (both hi-tech and traditional) to help them solve their problems of information overload, which typically focus on email overload as the top priority. These companies tend to fall into two main classes: those who seek a fast fix (I’ll call them “Class 1”), and those who take a longer, deeper view (“Class 2”). The difference has many ramifications at both the I and the R ends of the ROI equation…

The typical scenario is that a senior manager in a company or business group has decided that enough is enough: the harm to the personal productivity of themselves and their organization due to rampant email overload has become intolerable. Of course the problem is hardly new (it’s been the bane of knowledge workers everywhere since about 1994), but this manager has a sudden epiphany, usually in the aftermath of some especially ludicrous manifestation of the problem – a “Reply All” email storm, for example. And they decide to do something about it.

So now the manager invites me to discuss what might be done; and it is usually easy to see at this point which class this organization will fall into. If the general gist of the discussion is “Dammit, we get too much email, how can we reduce it?” then it’s a fair bet that we’re looking at a Class 1 implementation. If, by contrast, the manager sets before me an insightful problem analysis, and a well thought out tentative action plan, I can feel an incipient Class 2 situation. The Manager in this case has a good grasp of the problem, and may already have put in motion some action to solve it; for them engaging me results from a realization that professional help will benefit their plans.


The best cases are those where the problem is presented to me not as “Email Overload” but as “Communication Culture”, the overall set of norms and practices that include email, other electronic communication channels, and possibly also meetings. This is important because meetings and messaging are interdependent problems: the more email, the less people read it, so the only way to communicate with them is to set a meeting; but the more meetings, the less people show up to them, so people are forced to resort to email again. Analyzing and modifying the communication culture as a whole is way more powerful than just addressing email.

And so, a Class 2 company is willing to take a deeper look, which means running surveys and many employee interviews to characterize the problem; it is then willing to invest time and resources into creating sensible solutions. It is not unusual for such a company to define a task force that will operate over many months to define, deploy, and monitor a set of solutions. Meanwhile a Class 1 company will usually make do with inviting me to lecture to employees and/or managers about the IO problem – I have a lot to teach them there – but then do little or no follow-up. A set of behavior norms may be defined and posted (often as “The Ten Commandments of Email”), but without the preceding study and the following monitoring things tend to go back to “normal” after a little while.

Before you decide to deploy an email overload program, ask yourself: which class are you willing to be?

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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