Friday 7 October 2011

In praise of email as part of KM

Everyone professes to dislike email.

In most offices, especially after the holiday break, you hear people competing about the number of emails they received – “I had 500 to deal with”, “that’s nothing – my inbox had 1000 unread messages”, “I actually took my blackberry on holiday so I could weed them out before i got back”

Then when you introduce communities of practice, and suggest that the community Q&A forum may use email, people say “Oh No – not MORE emails”.

And yet, you can’t keep people away from email. It’s the first thing they do when they come to the office.  It’s the last thing they do at night. They check email at the weekend, and on the train. Email is communication, and lots of email means lots of communication and for most of us, communication is a large part of the job. The email habit is still very strong, and very strong to break. So why not work with it, and use email as a key enabler for KM?

Agreed, there is a lot of Spam email, which adds no value. There is a lot of email “FYI”, which is often overdone. There is a fair proportion of email that could be completely eliminated with no loss of value to anyone.

But for the majority of people, email is the best way to get their attention. With very few exceptions, email is the primary attention mechanism within most companies. For as long as people “have the email habit”, then our Knowledge Management activities need to be linked to email. Yes, there are better technologies, but why not align with the workhabits rather than try to break them?
  • Link the community Q&A forums to email, so people are notified by email of new questions, and can follow a link to reply to the question.
  • Link the community Blog to email, so people are notified of new items, and can follow a link to read it all, and comment.
  • Link the lessons database to email so people are notified of new lessons, and new actions they need to take.
  • Link the Wiki to email, so people are notified of new content

For a large proportion of people in a large proportion of companies, if they don’t hear by email, it might as well not have happened.


VMaryAbraham said...


I understand your position and have on occasion proposed it. Linking email to KM resources often seems the only way to put KM on the radar. Nonetheless, I can't help feeling that KM professionals should not be adding to the information overload. As we collectively pile information on hapless recipients, I suspect that communications that are not urgent (including KM communications) get lost or ignored.

Luis Suarez has shown an alternative path, but many I know do not feel they have the requisite tools or authority to follow his example. Are there other methods KM professionals can recommend? Our non-KM colleagues are desperate for some respite from the email deluge.

- Mary

Nick Milton said...

Re information overload Mary

If we assume that people need to be notified of new knowledge and new requests for knowledge that are relevant to them, then the question is not one of information overload but of delivery mechanism. That information would need to come to them anyway, whether it is via email, twitter, RSS or whatever.

Second point - there is no such thing as information overload when it is information we are truly interested in. What causes the overload people complain about in email is an overload of irrelevance. It's not a matter of urgency, it's a matter of relevance. Shell have done research on the use of email-enabled community forums which show that a community message is treated as much more relevant than yet another FYI from HR, and a request for assistance from a community colleague *is* treated as urgent.

I know that Luis is walking an alternative path, but as practical KMers we have a job to do, and I would rather choose approaches that fit with existing work habits than try to get people to fundamentally change the way they work before KM can be addressed. Everyone at work uses email. Few people at work, in the majority of companies, use twitter, yammer, blogs etc.

If you want to give people respite from the email deluge, then I would say you need a campaign to reduce irrelevant email, and KM is not irrelevant.

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