The email argument

So ubiquitous has email become that many people cannot imagine working without it. Indeed, it has become such an integral part of everyday corporate life that it has now become widely regarded as business-critical (witness the increasing use of Blackberries and similar devices by those who simply cannot bear to be out of email contact).

Working for a vendor of web-based construction collaboration technologies (project ‘extranets’), I often get asked if our system will allow them to use email. Why?

After all, as I often point out, email users seem to delight in being overloaded by email (it seems an over-full in-box is almost an indication of how vital the user is), with spam, email bounce-backs and out-of-office alerts adding to the burden, along with inefficient senders who don’t indicate whether their message is urgent, which project it concerns, what action is required, or whether the attachments are large or small, nice-to-know or need-to-know.

As a result, I sometimes revel in pointing out that use of email is intentionally limited in the BIW system. BIW Information Channel processes are based upon users "pulling" rather than the system using email to "push" information around the supply-chain. For most regular users, it is only in exceptional circumstances (eg: to urge team members to fulfil overdue actions) that email is used; for occasional users, email may also be used to make them aware that documents have been issued or forwarded to them.

Another major issue concerns the audit trail associated with email. Short of someone interrogating the recipient’s email system, the rest of the project team will have no way of discovering whether an email sent outside the collaboration system has been received or when (this may be critical in the event of a dispute – I have seen multi-million pound estimates associated with lawyers’ email document discovery processes). The BIW solution therefore incorporates an email-type application which can be used to send and receive messages that would otherwise have been sent by email, and, being integrated with the core application, the associated audit trail is preserved.

I was reminded of such debates when reading an article by Phil Wainewright (and some of his contacts): "What’s the true cost of running email in-house?". I particularly liked the concluding remarks from Mi8‘s Patrick Fetterman, who urged people to think about integration and regulatory requirements (among other issues), before pointing out:

"Email has become mission critical for most companies, just like the phone system and an Internet connection, but like these other systems it is NOT a core business function of the company; rather, it is an infrastructure service."

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  1. […] several times about the issues of using email to manage a construction project (starting with The email argument, February 2006). In my opinion, a better option is an online platform through which messages can be […]

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