Thought for the day:Pass the e-mail parcel

Incisive columnist and IT expert Colin Beveridge looks at a hot issue of the day.How many times a day do you play pass the parcel...

Incisive columnist and IT expert Colin Beveridge looks at a hot issue of the day.How many times a day do you play pass the parcel in the office? I'll bet that it's at least once an hour, or maybe more frequently, and that for most of the time you don't even realise when you are doing it.

Don't worry, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody does it, honestly. I'm not talking though about that harmless, fairly untidy, childhood party game of the same name. No, the pass the parcel to which I am referring is a more insidious and protracted pastime - internal e-mail copying and forwarding.

I hadn't really thought about it before the recent news that David Henshaw, chief executive of Liverpool City Council, has declared Wednesdays to be "no e-mail" days for all council staff.

Apparently, the volume of internal e-mail traffic has reached such epic proportions that the chief believes his staff are over-dependent on electronic transmissions, to the detriment of other, possibly more effective means, such as the telephone or direct personal contact.

He probably has a point, although I don't necessarily agree with his chosen remedy because "no e-mail" days sound a tad gimmicky, even for me.

I do, however, have sympathy with Mr Henshaw's suspicion that some might be using technology to offload tasks and problems to their colleagues, possibly to avoid taking personal responsibility for action.

These days it is so, so easy to quickly e-mail a difficult task to somebody else, either to share the problem or to shed it completely, rather than dealing with it ourselves.

The old adage was "a problem shared is a problem halved", but that was before the advent of e-mail, obviously.

Now, a problem shared can be a problem doubled, tripled or exponentially magnified. Simply because too many of us are too lazy when using e-mail forwarding and copying.

Of course, sharing problems, or resolving queries, with colleagues is a natural function of our working lives. But it is getting harder and harder to manage our mailboxes, largely because of the indiscriminate use of e-mail.

Twenty years ago, the internal post could take a day or two to reach parts of the same building and a well-honed memo might well have taken a day or two to dictate, be transcribed, typed and distributed.

That was then and this is now - we have to manage dozens of quick-fire business communications every day, personally. Which is why we don't always do it very well - and this is where we seriously erode the productivity benefits of our modern office technology.

Have a look at your in-box and I'll bet that you have at least one message that has done the rounds of your organisation - and grown substantially in the process.

At each stage in its journey, the message content will have been embellished before being passed on, as each recipient added their own personal contribution.

Many of us regularly receive huge e-mails that begin life as quite succinct, requests. Before they are finally dealt with, though, it is often difficult to unravel the many layers of superfluous "wrapping" that surrounds the basic message. Which takes time and can cause confusion about what really lies underneath.

Hence my opening analogy to the game of pass the parcel. We can all help each other by only using e-mail forwarding and copying when absolutely necessary, and by not complicating the underlying message.

Let's start now - we don't have to wait for the music to stop!

What's your view? Are you an e-mail buck-passer? Or is it being done to you? Let us know with an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, including Shell, BP, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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