E-mail: The Good, the Bad, the Bloated

SAN FRANCISCO (01/26/2000) - E-mail, sometimes called the "killer app" of the Internet, can be a more effective tool for office workers when used properly or a time drain if not. A recently released report by Ferris Research in San Francisco lays out the case for quantifiable productivity gains using e-mail, as well as the factors that lead to its misuse.

Ferris concludes that users need better tools than are available today to filter e-mail and customize their use of it. The report, called "Quantifying the Productivity Gains of E-mail," is based, in part, on 29 organizations Ferris surveyed by asking how e-mail affected productivity. Ferris undertook the research to help quantify the benefits of an e-mail-based office on top of what it believes are benefits that are hard to measure, such as faster business cycles and improved decision-making.

Among the report's findings is that e-mail provides clear time and money savings in unneeded postage, faxes, formatting, and printing.

"High communicators benefit most," says David Ferris, president of Ferris Research. "For example, you could see as much as a 40 to 50 percent improvement for salespeople. But a night watchman or a factory line worker aren't going to need e-mail as much and won't see the same level of benefit."

But there are negative aspects to e-mail use, even for frequent users. The report notes that e-mail introduces new levels of personal communications that could be a distraction at work, such as unsolicited messages like jokes and chain letters you wouldn't otherwise receive in the office. Other examples are personal correspondence with graphically-rich file attachments, stock tips, and recommendations to check out certain Web sites for mortgage and vacation deals unrelated to work. Office workers also waste an average of ten minutes a day dealing with messages they receive as part of a distribution list they didn't need to be on, in the Ferris model of a typical scenario.

"It takes time to examine such e-mail, especially if it's from someone in one's management chain," states the report.

The Chitchat Factor

E-mail streamlines many types of professional communication and is less intrusive than a ringing telephone. Phone calls often begin with an expectation of some courteous chitchat: "Hello, how are you. How are the kids?" E-mail, states the Ferris report, tends to be more concise and to the point.

E-mail also saves time in filing, since documents and correspondence simply arrive in one's electronic in-box.

"Conversely," states the report, "the time taken to find documents in electronic archives is generally less than for physical archives (although it can still be a frustrating process)!"

Two Hours a Day

The average office worker spends about two hours a day processing and dealing with e-mail, and the time spent is increasing, according to David Ferris. "It's a massive change that's taken place without management really noticing."

While there are specialized software filtering tools for certain professions such as sales, Ferris says there are no good tools for the general e-mail user to organize, prioritize, and interpret electronic correspondence, which can sometimes total scores of messages a day.

"The tools available today are crude and need to be better for people to maximize their use of e-mail," says Ferris.

Although spam, or electronic junk mail, gets a lot of attention for clogging in-boxes, Ferris doesn't think it's much of a problem in professional office settings.

Better E-mail

The higher bandwidth increasingly available to many office workers brings video clips, sound files, and other multimedia elements to e-mail. But Ferris says, on balance, greater bandwidth is a good thing since it enables more options for the transfer of information.

"Being able to see and hear, for example, a video transcript of a meeting you couldn't attend adds value, but there are also opportunities for abuse," says Ferris. "Instead of a joke sent as a text file that's 2K in size, you might get a video file that clogs the network. The issue of distraction via e-mail needs to be addressed by management so there are clear guidelines as to what is acceptable."

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