CIO Tony Murabito surveys workers at his company every year about the IT systems they use. The responses usually focus on technical issues, which is why last year's comments about email shocked him. One comment, "Let's blow up the Reply-to-All key!", summarised many users' sentiments. "There was just an overwhelming sense that there were no controls [on email] in place," Murabito says. After seeing the comments, Murabito decided to cut the number of emails at his compay, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, by 25 percent, by training employees how to better use email. This email problem is not unique to Cubist, says Dianna Booher, CEO of Booher Consultants and author of E-Writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication. "I hear a lot of complaining and there is not a lot of people doing something about it," she says. "But I think people will have to do something, because it's blocking productivity."
Cubist Pharmaceuticals is doing the following to tackle the email deluge: - Asking employees to put non-business-related messages, such as appeals to buy Girl Scout cookies, on the corporate intranet. - Limiting the ability to send company-wide emails to those employees who have a business need to do so. - Training workers to use the subject line to provide more detail and some direction, such as "for your action" or "for your information". - Reminding employees that they don't need to acknowledge every email that they were cc'd on. - Encouraging people to stop sending emails that simply say something like "Thanks!" - Adopting the ABC format for emails: action, background and close. - Increasing the interval at which the system refreshes in-boxes from every two minutes to every half-hour. - Routing certain emails, such as Google news alerts, to folders other than the in-box. Booher's surveys of clients have shown that 58 percent of workers spend up to three hours a day on email. Though some of that email time is undoubtedly related to getting their jobs done, she says, much of it is a waste because messages are either poorly written or have little or nothing to do with business. To be clear, this is not a spam problem. Workers at Cubist are complaining about the excessive amount of business-generated emails, Murabito says. They say they trudge through confusing and pointless messages because senders mindlessly hit "Reply to All" just to say something like "Thanks". "It is a kind of internal spam. It is low-value, low-priority communication that clogs up in-boxes and creates a nonstop stream of interruptions," says Mike Song, lead author of The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You, and CEO of Cohesive Knowledge Solutions, an email and meeting training company. Song says he is not surprised by the situation, because most employees don't receive any training on how to effectively use email. Murabito says his research showed that cutting email communications could help each Cubist worker recover an estimated 15 to 20 days of lost productivity annually – or 7000 to 9000 days every year for the whole organisation. "I never had a project before that could have that kind of ROI," he says, noting that his investment was mostly internal staff time and about $50,000 in training costs. Murabito says tackling the problem is yielding important benefits for the IT organisation, too. For example, the volume of email was bogging down the company's systems. Regular maintenance is scheduled to run from Saturday mornings to Sunday evenings. That was once enough time to run a typical integrity check, but as the amount of email grew, two days was no longer enough to run through and clean up corrupted objects in every mailbox. Murabito determined that if he could cut back on the volume of e-mails sent and stored, he could once again work within that time frame. He approached this problem as he does any IT project: He developed a business case to convince other executives that it was worth tackling. Response from the start was very positive. He laid out his goals, outlining a plan that called for providing tools and tips to help employees be more productive in managing their email, and training them on communication guidelines and best practices with the help of the company's contracted trainer. He also pulled together a team of employees from various departments who established ground rules. Not surprisingly, Murabito encountered some resistance. For example, he set up a program that would clean out everyone's deleted-mail folders every night and delete all sent emails that were over six months old, but some workers resisted, saying they needed those messages. That was an eye-opener. "It showed they were using emails for more than point-to-point communication. Some were using it for document management," Murabito says. This revealed that workers, such as those in the clinical and regulatory areas, need better document management tools — which he is delivering.