TechWatch: Making Email Work for Business

Email has burst on the business landscape only in the past fifteen years, and businesses are still trying to figure out the proper role for this powerful tool. Certainly spam, the subject of my column last issue, is one factor that undermines its effectiveness. I will survey some other factors here.

The bottom line is that email for business use is still rather immature, and there is a need to establish practices within companies, and across the business world, that will make email more effective.

Setting Appropriate Expectations

A notice gets sent out by email two days before a meeting. Half the invitees show up. After the meeting, a check of the invitees showed what happened to the rest:

One person’s invitation was apparently lost in cyberspace.

One person only looks at email once per week and didn’t see the notice.

One said she would be out of town and to go ahead without her.

One of those who actually made the meeting only did so when she received an inadvertent reminder because of the “reply all” from the person who couldn’t come.

This artificial scenario illustrates numerous points about email.

Email Reliability

One, it is not completely reliable. Messages may have the potential to travel at electronic speeds, but the path they encounter through various server providers can slow the trip to a crawl. We have probably all experienced emails arriving three or four days after they were sent. And emails that never arrived—with no message back to the sender.

J. Earl Calkins discusses the many woes of email reliability in his article in Broadband (

One solution to the problem is to request a receipt from an addressee when they open the email. This can be done through an automated response mechanism, or by establishing a practice within an organization that meeting notices require a reply (see the next section). Of course, this solution does not distinguish between a technological failure and a human failure (including the use of email for last minute notification, which too often does not work).

Organizational Practice

The second failure illustrated in the earlier scenario is the lack of common practice in the organization. This extends way beyond response to meeting notices, and includes all of the uses of email in a business. I know of very few organizations that have worked out such practice, but the more we depend on email the more important this is. A few areas to consider for organizational practice include:

  • Reading expectations. If there is no established expectation in the organization, email is not effective for time-critical issues. Many organizations have “work arounds” to this, including always calling one or two particular individuals who “never read email.” This is fine in a social situation, but not acceptable for a business where email is an essential business tool.
  • Response expectations. Some emails are for information and require no response. Others, including meeting notices, requests for information, or responses to requests should be replied to for clarity and out of courtesy. Again, individuals vary widely in how they handle this, and misunderstandings can easily develop. For example, a boss requests information on a particular subject, and you respond with ideas. Without a response, you are left to wonder—was it received, were the ideas useful, what are the next steps, etc.?
  • Use of “reply all.” Some users automatically hit “reply all” in response to almost any message, creating spam-like streams of email. On the other hand, sometimes “reply all” creates clarity for others in the resolution of a particular issue. For example, when a request for information is sent to six people, the “reply all” feature allows the others to see that the request has been addressed. Or when a small group is trying to establish a meeting time, it helps everyone see the constraints as the group responds.
  • Appropriate subjects for email. This subject is big enough that I would like to deal with it in the next section, since it involves the nature of email, the law, and social practices for organizations.

Appropriate Subjects for Email

Many people think of email as merely “fast letter writing,” or just another means of electronic communication like the telephone. In fact it is neither of these, but has its own niche with significant implications. I will illustrate this with two brief stories from my own experience at The Boeing Company.

The first involved a disagreement between two members of my staff. They were trying to settle this difference using email, and chose to copy me on their messages (perhaps to establish that they were really in the right on this particular issue). After seeing the third or fourth exchange, I left my office and went to one of theirs, and asked if he could go for a walk with me. We went to the other person’s office, and I asked the two of them to sit down and resolve the issue face-to-face. They did, in about five minutes.

The second involved an individual on my staff who returned from a particularly difficult trip. The airline he had used had lost his luggage going out, and had canceled his return flight without notice, and he was understandably upset. The next day he wrote an email to eight members of my staff telling in great detail of his difficulties and suggesting they no longer use this particular airline. I called him immediately, and told him he should never make derogatory comments about any airline in an email, since you don’t know where an email will go and the airlines are our customers. He replied that I was over-reacting, and it was only sent to eight people. Three days later he was in my office with an apology. He had received a phone call from the vice president of sales working with this particular airline. The vice president had received a copy of the email on a distribution list of hundreds of people, and was concerned because they were in the middle of a sales campaign with this particular airline!

Email Characteristics

These stories illustrate several points where email is different from either telephone or regular mail.

  • It is asynchronous. The delay in response, for reasons I don’t fully understand, seems to make it very difficult to resolve difficult issues requiring discussion. Using synchronous communication such as the telephone allows an iteration that seems to be more conducive to resolving conflict. Face-to-face is even better because it adds expression and nuance that is missing in email.
  • It is impersonal. Psychologists have shown that people change personalities in their email responses, usually becoming more aggressive. They may write something, even with their name attached, that they would never say personally.
  • It can be widely and cheaply replicated. Putting out a message on an email distribution list of 600 is simple compared with doing this in print or passing on information over the phone or in person.
  • It may have a very long life. You can delete an email you have written. (Likely your systems people could still retrieve it if you would rather never see it again. The only way it would be gone for good is if you really needed it!) However, you have no idea how many copies of it are out there, where they are, or who has one.
  • It is less obtrusive than a phone call or personal conversation. This makes email the ideal tool for leaving messages and posting status.

Because of these characteristics, organizations should invest some time in creating guidelines for the appropriate use of email. This includes appropriate subjects, distribution lists, guidelines for expression, etc.

Email and the Law

More recently, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has introduced another challenge for email users. The provision requiring proper records retention includes the need to establish archiving of email. Here is an example of how law, put in for one reason, has fundamentally changed the informal nature of email. Now email must be used and managed much more cautiously.

According to Michael Pearce, founder and CEO of OptiStor Technologies, “Companies must carefully consider how they retain, control and manage their information assets. A good example is email, which should be managed as a critical repository of corporate data, rather than being considered a personal productivity tool.”

In addition to records retention, there are other implications for the use of email. Many companies that had migrated to allowing the personal use of company email systems under appropriate conditions (much like allowing the personal use of company telephones) now may have to rethink these policies.


Email is maturing, coming out of the “wild west” where anything goes. As it becomes essential to business, and under the control of the law, companies are wise to take the time to craft policies and guidelines for practice in the use of email.

A caution is in order as this is done. Don’t overreact. Carefully consider the potential unintended consequences of any proposal. This suggests the first set of guidelines should be preliminary and subject to amendment. One such proposal I saw suggested no one in the same building should send an email to another person in that building—they should have a face-to-face conversation. This is nonsense, of course. Because email is less obtrusive, it is the ideal tool for some kinds of communication even for people in the same area. Another caution. Involve the people of the organization in creating the guidelines. This is a necessary part in their later acceptance.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.