Not too long ago we looked at Atos, an $11 Billion IT firm that decided to kill email. They did considerable internal research and concluded that rather than contributing to profitability, email is a massive drain on profitability and needs to be replaced by newer technology, probably a “super-Facebook” like social network portal. Atos shared some frightening numbers: 85% of time spent on emails is “waste”, workers spend 15 to 20 hours per week on email, workers spend time at home and at work on waste emails. At a glance, this looks like every firm I know. Your organization might be a bit different, you might have some workers who don’t sit at a desk and read email, but for most Fortune or FTSE 500 firms this should look familiar. Still… kill email? When you don’t have anything to replace it today? Maybe that’s a bridge too far for a PMO project. Let’s scale back our ambitions to just taming email, and then see what we can accomplish!
Let’s start by converting this waste to dollar values. Atos included work at home, so let’s say that their workers have a 50 hour week. We take 85% of the 15 to 20 hours wasted on email, which yields 25% to 35% of all work hours. Let’s take the lower number and say that every single person in your organization (OK, any person with email) would have 25% more time to do work if email was efficient. If the cost of a fully loaded worker is $60,000, that’s a potential improvement of $15,000 per worker. That doesn’t even take into account the lower cost of… IT management, Internet bandwidth, internal investigations, legal discovery, etc. … if there were fewer emails to deal with. In many big corporations, this average is going to be much higher. At the top end of the scale eFinancialNews quoted the average salary for investment bank employees (not including benefits and others costs) at $406,000 with Deutsche Bank in at $497,000. Obviously, top executives earn even more, and every one of these highly paid executives has an email account. That gives you some idea of how expensive wasted time can be.
We now have a bit of a handle on what email waste costs, but without taking truly radical steps (i.e. risky, time-consuming and costly) what kind of results can you expect? Atos tried an experiment. High-level executives sent out emails that essentially said, “cut it out” and got a 20% reduction in email. Interestingly, I’ve worked at firms that did exactly the same thing and had similar reductions in email traffic. Pretty good! You may have had the same experience in you firm. Maybe something went wrong with an email, and senior executives reprimanded staff… sent out new rules, or training on email etiquette… and there was immediate improvement. But after just a week or a month, everyone went back to their old habits. because of this experience we think, “You just can’t beat email! People go back to do what they like do, even when the CEO threatens to fire them if they can’t follow the rules!”
As a project manager, I take away a very different message. Whenever a process problem is identified, and the proposed solution is to tell people, “Stop doing that”, the BEST result you can hope for is a short-term improvement that quickly fades away. Email is an ongoing function. You need an ongoing group to define and control the quality of that process. Defining and controlling email quality would be the responsibility of an “Office of Email.” Did I hear someone say, “Email is too diverse, too personal and too ambiguous to be centrally managed? We can’t have our personal emails examined by other people, think of the security issues! Besides, isn’t the IT department in charge of email? If they couldn’t fix the problem how can you?”
Let’s start addressing these issues by understanding what IT does today to manage email. IT rarely manages the content of email. Instead, they manage the servers, storage space, and licensing of the email system. IT does actively manage the system, checking utilization and removing expired ID, ensuring that the system grows as use grows. HR also has a role in email, periodically providing instruction about inappropriate email, reviewing information on sexual harassment and other HR disputes, and providing training on reducing hostility in emails. However, none of these group’s deals with managing email as a function that is necessary to the operation of the firm.
Let’s look at what a new Email Officer would do, and you will see that this position can bring tremendous improvement, without violating personal privacy or requiring the Email Officer to have deep knowledge of each department’s operations.
- Set a baseline:Before you start making any changes, get a good snapshot of the email systems. If possible, get snapshots at different times, different days and different months to understand seasonal changes. From the following
- Total number of emails, emails per person, range of emails per person (ex.: 10% of users exchange 10 or fewer emails a day, 6% exchange 500 or more emails per day).
- Compare internal vs. external email (what is the count for each?)
- Top users for sent email vs. top users for received email.
- Identify the average time to read a simple “few line” text email, a long text email, an email with an attachment, etc. so that you can convert emails into time used.
- Total emails deleted without being read (a real indication of completely wasted emails). Another variation is looking at a number of emails with HUGE distributions… what percentage of recipients deleted without reading. Any patterns?
- Create monitoring emails: You don’t want to look at individual emails, but you do want to identify the large email distribution groups in your firm and (with permission) create IDs for these groups. Many low or no value emails are those that are sent indiscriminately to large groups. If the group is too large for the senders to know who is in it, then it would be hard to imagine that this is a “secure” or private communication. Still, be careful about which groups you choose to monitor.
- Send a message: Make sure that the tone is level and respectable, but firm and from a very high level officer… especially one that doesn’t often communicate to the entire firm. Focus on improving everyone’s life, not punishing bad email users.
- Measure: There should be a very noticeable drop in email, comparable to the 20% drop at Atos. If a mild and generic message to the firm can produce this change, you should be able to maintain this improvement level, and probably exceed it.
- Analyze: You are going to find patterns in the data. The ideal pattern is a group with highly paid staff that exchange a lot of emails. If this group also deletes many emails before reading them, then you’ve found a great group for an improvement pilot. Find out what types of emails are sent to 100 or more users, 1,000 or more users. Find out if similar groups in different locations exchange a very different number of emails.
- Communicate: An email to the firm from a high level officer works once or twice, but if you want to keep the momentum going to you need a targeted and meaningful communication. The metrics you have gathered will allow you to approach a specific manager and say, “This is an example of an email that costs the firm $50,000. Your department produces two of these every week. This may be an excellent use of funds. I just wanted to review this with you to be sure that you understand the costs, and agree that it is appropriate.”
- Train: A lot of emails are sent to the wrong audience, sent to a larger than planned audience, or could have been less time-consuming for users if advanced email features were used. Focusing training (with some macros and scripting) on individuals who create high-volume emails could dramatically reduce email waste.
- Innovate: Email has become a system for transporting documents, running surveys and many other functions that email is not well suited for. Identifying inefficient uses of email will produce a wealth of valuable PMO projects.
Tackling the issue of low and no value emails could be the most significant improvement project that your firm can launch this year… possible this decade. Creating an Office Of Email with a staff of 1-5 people (depending on the size of your firm) provides the resources to initiate and maintain that first 20% reduction in email waste, and then begin the development of projects to mine the remaining 80% (or $12,000 per employee) of wasted email time. A typical Fortune/FTSE 500 firm can free up tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in productivity. If you don’t have a higher potential project in your PMO portfolio, RUN… don’t walk… to your PMO office and start writing a plan to open an Office Of Email! And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!