Email doesn’t spam people – people spam people

By Richard Hughes on October 07, 2011

Many years ago, I was in a bookshop waiting to pay for something (a book, I suppose). The people ahead of me in the queue were asking the assistant to search for a book, and she was failing to do it "because the system is down". Nothing particularly strange about that – I can usually guarantee that any time I contact a call centre I will get some sort of apology for the system being down, or running slowly. But what was particularly memorable about the bookshop incident was the way the shop assistant assumed that the customer would accept this as a valid reason for not being able to do something, as if "the system" had a mind of its own, therefore no blame could be attached to her or her company if it wasn’t working.

While writing this, I came across an article by Robert Plant in the Harvard Business Review on a very similar topic. He starts by saying:

The next time a customer service rep says, "The computer won’t let me do that" or "The system tells me what to do," remember this: Behind every such phrase is a set of processes designed, or at least endorsed, not by computers but by human beings somewhere in the corporate hierarchy. The system may tell the reps what to do, but someone told the system what to do.

We’ve got to stop doing this; we’ve got to stop blaming "the system" for our own faults. A company’s computer systems are no more to blame for poor customer service than a car is responsible for a car crash. 

It reminds me of a rule at the first company I worked at after university – we were not allowed to refer to "bugs" in our software product. As the terminology "bugs" was believed (erroneously, it appears) to have been based on insects getting into the mechanisms of early computers, it carried the implication of something beyond the programmer’s control. So we had to use the word "defect" instead. A silly rule, but one which had good intentions.

But I do believe this "blame the system" culture is slowly dying out. Consider the recent, ludicrous attempts by people such and Anthony Wiener and Gary Cook to claim that inappropriate messages they sent via Twitter or email were not actually from them, but the result of being hacked. Come on, did you think anyone would believe that? Really? The technical-literacy of the population is much higher than it was 10 years ago, so blaming the system really doesn’t convince anyone any longer.

Except, perhaps, in one case. Email.

I find it depressing to see thought leaders in technology and business lining up to blame email for all our problems of information overload, wasting each others time, and all-round poor communications. In the UK, we don’t have the same sort of affinity for bumper-stickers that the US has, but if I were to have one, it would probably be this variation on the old NRA favourite.

I use a lot of different communications tools – Email, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, SMS, phone (yes, sometimes), and of course several enterprise social networks using BroadVision’s Clearvale. And I get spam on ALL of them. Of course, true spam of the get-rich-quick and blue-pill variety is the easiest to deal with. It’s the "friendly spam" (as described by Pehong earlier this year) that takes longest to deal with, because these are people you want to communicate with, so you have to assess each message from them.

Email is the anathema to many of the advocates of social business, although I have never really subscribed to the crusade against it. Like all the communication tools, it has its strengths and weaknesses. But ultimately, poor use of email is caused by people, not email itself. 

I recently came across the Email Charter which sets out "10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral". They are (mostly) good rules, but I believe only one of them is unique to email.

So, to everyone who describes email as "the bane of my life", I would suggest that poor communication is the bane of your life. It is absolutely true that moving to an enterprise social network gives organisations the opportunity improve their communication, but if they take their bad habits with them, they will simply face the same problems they had before. Buying an exercise bike doesn’t make you lose weight – but understanding how to use it to exercise effectively does.