A future without e-mail? If history is any indicator, then in all probability it will happen. Before you dismiss this as an alarmist point of view, answer the following questions, and keep reading!

How many unread e-mails do you have in your Inbox right now? What is the date of your oldest unread e-mail? How many e-mails have you deleted this year without reading them? How do you feel about returning to your e-mail after a vacation or holiday?

Consider that about ten years ago a busy manager would send out on average two memorandums a week. Remember those hard copy one-pagers? Eight memorandums distributed by an employee in any given month would mark that individual as a prolific writer, and he/she would probably be complimented on his/her communication efforts and skills. Now, on any given day, I write as many as 30 e-mails. Since it's all too convenient to e-mail by Blackberry on the weekends, I have written as many as 800 e-mails in a month. Is this really a good thing? I wonder.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. In 1906 Alexander Bain invented the fax machine, and in 1972 Frank Smith started a company call FedEx. Each of these inventions was heralded in its time as the future of business communication; each also to some degree replaced its predecessor as the preferred communication tool. Each at some point became so popular that it was overused and abused.

Today we screen all our telephone calls, or block them out entirely with participation in the "Do Not Call List" Web site. Today, faxes are commonplace. When was the last time your assistant ran into your office with an urgent fax? Today we expect to receive not only critical contracts overnight, but also all kinds of nonessential communications. When was the last time your assistant ran into your office with a FedEx package?

Most people believe that e-mail is the be-all and end-all of corporate communications and that there has never been and never will be a more reliable, effective, inexpensive and productive business communication method. I too appreciate the extraordinary benefits of e-mail and its enormous contribution to business productivity. However, I also believe that its ease and versatility have led to our improper use of e-mail, and that we are quickly approaching the demise of the most powerful communication tool of our time. So in the interests of our collective sanity and our business productivity, I share with you some of what I believe is undermining this great tool and jeopardizing its future.

Conference call e-mail. Eight individuals are participating in a group conference call. The back channel e-mails begin: "Can you believe he just said that?" ... "Her numbers are bad and she is covering" ... " Should I bring up the ...." This is undermining the call at hand. The reason for a conference call is to have a group discussion, not to provide an opportunity for behind-you're your-back, off- topic comments.

Your-colleague-next-door e-mail. You send your coworker down the hall a message that could have been conveyed in person. Direct, in-person, two-way conversation is the most effective form of communication 99% of time. There is less opportunity for misunderstandings, greater sense of importance conveyed, and probably will save you time in the long run.

The unintended tone e-mail. This type of e-mail has caused more grief than can adequately be described here. This happens when an individual or group of individuals reads into an e-mail a tone that was not intended by the sender. An e-mail that was intended to be informational can be read as aggressive, emotional, critical or defensive. This typically ignites what is commonly known as an "E-mail War" (read later on).

Consistently effective written communications is difficult. If you blow it only 1 in 100 e-mails, then at my pace of 800 e-mails a month you are angering someone every three or four days. There is a far smaller chance of mistaking tone if the conversation can be had in person or by phone. If it cannot, I recommend that you be extremely careful in the use of capitalized letters, exclamation points and symbols. Also try to write at least one sentence or word which clearly communicates tone. "I'm satisfied, however...," or "I'm concerned about," or " I recognize the difficulty and I'd like to help..."

Blind Copy or BCC. This is an option that allows the sender to send a copy of the e-mail to a recipient without the knowledge of the other recipients. This is markedly different than forwarding an e-mail.

This falls somewhere between evil and cowardice. Strong language, but one derived from direct knowledge and experience. I guarantee that if the sender does this often, he/she will be revealed as untrustworthy. The recipient will at some point accidentally reply to all and expose the deception. The blind recipient should not tolerate such activity because it promotes an unhealthy work environment.

Personalized e-mail. This is an e-mail that has a special wallpaper, color background, informal font type or size. Do not do it. No one would dream of issuing a corporate memo on unapproved stationary. Nothing infuriates people more than trying to reply to this e-mail and having the fuscia background color be and Comic Sans font appearing on their own e-mail.

Gratuitous solicitations. These are e-mails where the respondents have two-word messages like "Thank You" or "You're Welcome." Now I might get some argument over this one, and be accused of being unfriendly or ungrateful. However, consider the following: How many times in the age of written memorandums did we issue a two-word memo? If you are truly appreciative, write a letter of commendation or simply pick up the phone or, better yet, get off your duff, walk down the hall and give your co-worker a sincere expression of gratitude. Somehow a two-word e-mail doesn't quite do it for most people.

Group assignment or group request. This is where someone in the organization needs several departments to work in a coordinated fashion. The e-mail may have six to 12 recipients and represents a heads-up or a request for input from a diverse group. This is a guaranteed nonstarter. Everyone assumes the request for information or support will be answered by one of the other 11 recipients on the list.

Out of hierarchy. Included in the distribution may be the sender's boss's boss or other inappropriate contact.

I am amazed that accessibility and ease of use, which are two good things, can lead to such a mess. Although someone may think two or three times before calling or visiting with their manager's boss, he/she may not hesitate to distribute e-mails outside the reporting loop. While some may view this as a net positive, I disagree. While greater dissemination of information is good, undermining a reporting structure is the forerunner of anarchy. Short-term gain = long-term disaster.

Redundant correspondence. Because it is so easy to do, some individuals will copy their manager on virtually every communication. This has three detrimental effects. One, it contributes to the information overload by filling the inbox. Two, it lures the manager into involving himself in every decision. Three, it creates an expectation of a comment or response which, if left unmet, can further undermine the manager-employee relationship.

Corporate e-mail blast. Disseminated to all employees at once, this type of correspondence in theory is ideally suited for e-mail. Unfortunately, every large organization is finding it counterproductive. We do it too frequently and often send information to the entire group instead of the individuals to whom it should be directed. After a while no one bothers reading it.

Examples: Sending out guidelines for corporate travel to all employees when only 10% travel for business, or sending out notices to all employees for every corporate hiring or appearance in the news. The effect on employees is numbing.

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