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Much of our email overload consists of newsletters we signed up for in eras gone by, unsolicited mails from sales people promising to change our lives for ever and ever, desperate pleas for help, promises to share inheritance or increase our “endowments,” and notifications from the umpteen social networks we are part of. And we revel in whining about it to no end.

But we business users have less of an excuse. Corporate filters are increasingly efficient in catching and incinerating email of the above kind. Yet we face email overload nonetheless. Research finds that the typical corporate worker sent and received close to 110 emails per day and we spend half of our work day dealing with this information barrage from email and other sources. So what does this bloated inbox consist of?

Look closely.

How many of emails have the merry queue of RE:RE:RE:RE.. as a subject line? Look even closer. How many of these emails can be put in one of the following categories–a discussion, a task you delegated to others or vice versa, a document you are collaborating on with others, or everyone trying to coordinate a meeting?

Notice that none of the above qualify as one-to-one communication, for which email was mainly designed. Heck, it is not even one to many. It is many-to-many, where everyone needs to interact with everyone else. And many-to-many communication is collaboration.

As soon as you try to employ email for many-to-many interactions, hell breaks loose–exponentially. Consider the following all-too-familiar situation, and keep the email counter running. You send an email to two people to finalize a meeting time. One says yes, the other requests a reschedule. You reply to all, suggesting a new time. The new proposed time is unfortunately not suitable for the first person. Another set of responses, another reply to all for a reschedule. Finally everyone responds agreeing on a time. If you have been counting, the whole thread added nine emails to your inbox. And this was just three people.

This is what James Gaskin has called the “law of meeting coordination:

V = P2

where the number of potential emails going back and forth is the square of participants in the thread. The law is equally applicable to a more complex situation like using email for working together on a document, where people are more likely to have disagreements and the document is going to fly back and forth multiple times. What to speak of the hassle of making sure that everyone is working off the latest version.

Ironically, there are tools which have been designed for these specific tasks. Information tools designed for “many to many” interactions–collaboration tools–online calendars for scheduling, project management for task delegation, document management for working together on documents, and discussion forums for discussions. And businesses are increasingly accepting collaboration tools as the next generation information management software, given the continuing growth of this market. At a conceptual level, rather than pushing duplicate copies of data back and forth (think a document attachment), everyone accesses and works off a common instance of data (think everyone accessing and working on a document in a shared online folder). Here, people are “pulled” to the data as opposed to it being “pushed” to everyone.

So we have the tools to combat a big chunk of this email overload, and also enjoy other vaunted organizational and productivity benefits of collaboration tools. However, email persists, while many email killers die and are forgotten. We have to acknowledge that getting rid of email is equally a behavioral problem, as a technological problem. Ancient tool as it is, its simplicity and familiarity simply has us addicted. Email users have to be cajoled, trained and even coerced to wean them off email. Our approach is that our HyperOffice Collaboration Suite includes collaboration tools fully integrated with email. The fact that collaboration tools are part of the same console as email reduces barriers to adoption. Contextual integration, like the email-to-tasks button which converts emails into tasks further helps.

Hopefully, the day will come when email will matter to us less and less, and horrifying reply to all stories will be a thing of the past.

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