"Car reg R883JGN has left lights on in car park B"; "come and say good-bye to Joyce in the Canteen at 2pm today - sticky cakes"; "crocodile wrestling for charity - pls sponsor me".
What proportion of your daily mailbox is taken up with this kind of corporate e-mail chit-chat? Can you deal with all your e-mail daily? How do you decide which e-mails to read immediately, later, or not at all? Have you ever sent an e-mail that provoked an unexpected response as a result of it being misinterpreted? And do staff members solicit for their favourite charity on the corporate e-mail?
There was a general feeling that e-mail was a critical means of communication and could not just be ignored, but also that it was not particularly efficient. Important messages were getting mislaid in the deluge of trivia or messages were being forwarded many times with the subject changing while the title remained the same.
In an attempt to quantify this gut feeling, a random survey revealed that almost one-third of staff were not able to deal with all their e-mail on a daily basis; 40% of staff had more than 100 items in their in-box at any one time.
Staff had developed individual strategies to deal with it, by defining mail in-box rules to filter messages, or by not replying until they received a reminder, but we decided a more formalised approach was required and so we developed a corporate guide to the use of e-mail.
Having accepted the issue was sufficiently widespread and important, actually drafting the policy was relatively straightforward. Articles, people's experience and examples from other organisations were all used to develop a generic, product-independent set of guidelines. It was intentionally brief - two sides of A4 covering top tips, both dos and don'ts; guidance on managing your mailbox so you do not lose important messages when away from the office.
Finding an appropriate means of communicating the guidelines was almost more difficult than drafting them, as the material was not substantial enough to be a training course in its own right, but needed explaining (ie it couldn't just be sent by e-mail).
Departmental staff meetings were used, first to confirm there was a general issue, which was universally agreed, then to walk through the document and propose enhancements.
Generally, the concept was welcomed and accepted, with the exception of the few cynics who didn't perceive there to be a problem.
The real test, however, is how has behaviour changed, if at all, six months after the guidelines were introduced. Without doubt, the single most obvious change has been the reduction in out-of-date news messages because staff now routinely use a message ageing system.
Other improvements are an impression of fewer mass distribution mailings, as users are now more selective in who they broadcast messages to, better use of the subject line (putting the whole message or response into the subject field, so the recipients don't even need to open the message.
But the ultimate proof of its success was its adoption in our UShead office; although, to date, the results of its application internationally are still to be seen!
Tim Ewbank is director, information systems & infrastructure for Amgen
This was first published in February 2000