Most people complain fervently about how electronic mail they get. My opinion: electronic mail is the best invention since sliced bread – or, at least the best since the Internet.
When you scratch the surface (or “open the envelope”), most of us are probably addicted to electronic mail and its newer cousins BlackBerrys, text messaging and twitter.
I know what large organizations did before e-mail. They wrote memos. They wrote stacks and stacks of paper memos. There were legions of clerks and secretaries who prepared memos for their bosses on typewriters.
I learned to touch-type on manual typewriters at North Tama High School in Traer, Iowa, a rural community school which wisely foisted typing class on every student, boy or girl. Why it was mandatory, I don’t know, as secretarial jobs were seen as menial even then. Perhaps the principal Bob Clark clairvoyantly foresaw (even before Al Gore) the Internet and computers? I know he died without a lot of wealth, so he wasn’t clairvoyant enough to buy Apple or Microsoft as startups, but clearly he was a prescient educator.
With paper memos (and carbon paper), bureaucracies took a loooong time to make decisions. And those decisions were hard to communicate other than via staff meetings or the ubiquitous company bulletin boards.
Usually very few people were involved in such decisions because of the amount of paper, the interoffice mail deliveries, and the slowness of the whole process. Beyond typing memos, pre-e-mail bureaucracies (to include corporations and private businesses as well as government) made a lot of decisions via small face-to-face meetings and the telephone – usually one-on-one phone calls.
E-mail changed all this. Now information can be rapidly disseminated to an entire company, or indeed, the entire world (skirting those ubiquitous spam filters). Through prudent and frugal use of e-mail, information can collected and decisions made, often without the need for face-to-face meetings. We’re more productive. We get more done in a shorter period of time. And we can get input from throughout our organization, not just the people we see face-to-face or in meetings every day.
Certainly millions of secretaries have been put out of work, but millions of much-higher-paid and more respected geeks (aka information technology workers) have been put INTO work, not just for managing e-mail, but also for all the related technologies (servers, storage, spam filters and so forth).
The City of Seattle is deep in the throes of converting from Novell GroupWise to Microsoft Exchange/Outlook for electronic mail. This $10 million project (including standardization on Office 2007) represents the 4th generation of electronic mail for us, starting with IBM’s CICS Office, thru a Diaspora of LAN-based e-mail systems to standardizing on GroupWise and now to Outlook. A team of 20 technology employees is hard at work at this conversion. I’m looking forward to June 24th, when I (as CTO, Chief Geek, and Chief Dog-food-eater) become one of the first log-in to my newly-minted Outlook.
E-mail: the bane of our existence? A vast improvement in productivity and decision making? A way to flatten and democratize our existence? Yeah, it is all that and more.
E-mail: I like it.