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Email Leadership

Corporate Email's Mission Creep

Posted May 23, 2012, by Roy Speed

A fine mess we're in... It's safe to say that 20 or so years ago, when business leaders first authorized corporate email systems for their companies, they did not envision the way things have turned out.

Here's where things currently stand with corporate email:

  • Employees are devoting between one third and one half of each workday to email.
  • Employers now sustain a staggering investment in email activity, amounting annually to more than one third of payroll.
  • In the event of litigation or a regulatory investigation, employee email will likely play a starring role in depositions and in court -- and may even represent opposing counsel's best evidence.

So how have companies addressed this leviathan? -- Well, they haven't, really:

  • Few companies have any standards for writing or managing email.
  • Company email policies, when they do exist, were written by attorneys and focus only on legal parameters, like Company email is company property -- not on efficiency or effectiveness.
  • Email is seldom addressed in job descriptions or performance reviews.

What accounts for this state of affairs? How did we get here? -- The answer is "mission creep," the phrase we use to describe gradual but unplanned expansion into new areas of activity or endeavor.

The key word here is gradual. Back in the 1990s, soon after its introduction in the workplace, email began to replace other forms of written communication -- first the memo, informal reports; then business letters. Email replaced faxes. Email attachments began replacing overnight envelopes.

But that was just the beginning. Email began to prove useful for specific business processes: submitting travel expenses, communicating manufacturing specs on a customer order -- companies have found thousands of such uses for email.

Over the last decade, moreover, spoken communication too has migrated to writing -- among students in the form of texting, but inside corporations, primarily email. Employees stopped picking up the phone when they needed something and fired off an email instead. They no longer walked the 12 steps down the hall to poke their head in the door.

They even began to use email to conduct meetings. Coordinating schedules for real-time meetings or conference calls had become increasingly cumbersome, so instead of trying to meet as a group, they simply fired up an email exchange.

"Mission creep" alone, however, does not explain the continuing inaction of business leaders in the face of such sweeping change. Faced with the email challenge, do executives have any mental models, any recent experiences that come to mind as useful templates or precedents for tackling email?

COMMENTS

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