I’ve spoken about cognitive entrenchment before – the notion that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and the preference for the familiar ways of doing things – in the context of sticking with analogue ways of doing things. And to be honest, that is how I often think of it. But it’s not only about holding on to a non-technology paradigm over a technology-powered way of working, it can also be about being resistant to using new technology instead of familiar technology that has become part of the woodwork. For instance, when sending an email becomes our communications default whether or not email makes sense for that specific exchange.

Of course, email is an advancement over snail mail. Emailing a digital version of a document back and forth for review, revisions and sign-off absolutely make sense compared to couriering hard copies. You save time and money on the communication itself, plus on the associated tasks like compiling the latest version of the documents and then re-sharing them. But fast forward a fifth of the way into the 21st century and email has very clear challenges, in terms of how it’s used and what it’s used for.


How email is used

  • Email volumes: Email really was a victim of its own success and it’s almost impossible to keep up with the daily deluge. In this overwhelm it is easy to miss important emails, or for email trails to overlap, causing confusion and uncertainty.
  • Email is used for everything: That important reply to a sensitive negotiation is likely to be wedged in between newsletters, vouchers, one-time PINs, invoices, and family round robins.
  • Spam filters: You have no control over how your recipient’s IT department has configured their spam filters, creating the risk of important, time-sensitive emails going astray.
  • Security risk: Phishing scams are still the number one way many cyber-attacks are initiated, leading to skepticism and lack of trust over email as a communications channel.
  • Open to interpretation: Written communication can be misinterpreted thanks to a lack of non-verbal cues, especially when we’re writing and reading emails fast to try to get through the deluge.


What email is used for

  • The allocation of tasks and next steps, but with various people in copy is it always clear who is required to do what and when?
  • To round-robin documents for review, resulting in multiple versions stored locally on people’s laptops, plus the requirement for a lot of work to arrive at a single version of the truth.
  • Managing workflows internally and with third parties, resulting in miscommunication, dropped balls, delays and mistakes.
  • Bridging the gaps between different systems, which is time-consuming, manual and clunky.
  • Managing projects resulting in far too much time fielding and replying to emails vs doing the actual work.

The reality is that email creates just as much manual, repetitive labor as some analogue processes. This is work that humans don’t enjoy doing and aren’t particularly good at. This just goes to show that the “battle” isn’t between analogue ways of doing things and digital systems and processes. It’s about the right mix of both: a mix that allows your people to do their best work, reduces unnecessary effort and provides a speedier, more streamlined, improved outcome for all.

I’m not necessarily saying do away with all emails today. But what I am saying is consider if defaulting to email is your best option or whether there is another way to do things. Yes, less is usually more, but only as long as everyone and every tool has a purpose and adds value to what you are trying to achieve, for instance, a speedy and effortless deal.

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