The Emperor’s New Clothes

As an ex-computer salesman, this really grabbed my interest today. The idea that a man could propose stopping using emails is pretty remarkable for any business. But for a senior exec? The article’s here:

The first thing to strike you is that it’s ludicrous that a senior businessman could suggest not using email. I mean, it’s essential to all businesses now, isn’t it?

The second thing to strike you, if you think about it, is just how stupid was that first thought.

For centuries men have run organisations (some women, but historically, mainly men, so don’t be picky) without email. They have used fabulous modern technologies, such as wax tablets, slates, rolls of vellum, paper, pencils, pens and even, God help us, their voices to communicate.

The chaps who built this didn't need email.

There was a time only very recently when telephones were used to – get this – speak to people.Yes, they really weren’t there (as my daughter believes) purely to increase an individual’s Tetris score. They were not designed originally to send short messages (which on my phone may be received up to twenty four hours later), but to call.

I first started using email a long, long time before most others. I joined Wang Laboratories in (I think) March 1985, and there I first gained access to a worldwide network of some thirty five thousand other employees. All of them were available on the Wang email network. And it was brilliant.

In the old days, we used to use stuff like - well, paper. Thanks to my old boss, Mike Willcocks for demonstrating its correct use!

I could write to a US colleague about a specific client and get a swift response. If I had a client with a particular problem, I could send a flash message to all the support or sales teams in the world to find a solution. Wonderful! That way I found a digital mapping solution for Kent County Council that was integrated with voice and data that could solve all their internal data processing, image and voice requirements. It was way ahead of the competition. So far ahead, in fact, that I think they didn’t believe us, and bought a different system promised to them by a consortium – which didn’t exist, and which naturally never did. After spending millions, KCC ditched that project and went somewhere else.

But the email system was brilliant – glorious, life-enhancing and stupendous.

That was why it became so essential to all staff, and soon to everyone else. Who doesn’t sit at home for a while each evening checking emails? How could business have survived in the days before email, we all wonder.

And yet …

Yes, I was there at the outset. And for every email I sent out to my colleagues, I received an equivalent number from other people. Pretty soon Cobblers and Young Hermann, two of my mates at Wang, realised that we were losing good drinking time because of catching up on all the emails.

A superb techie friend of mine, Mike Haslam, used to have to wander around with an enormous Delsey briefcase. He was the head of support for the Wang VS computer systems and every day he received emails from UK and US staff who had serious problems with their customers’ computers. All these emails were “Extremely Urgent”.

Another use for paper. No email marketing, just good, old-fashioned methods. They work, you know!

I once saw him printing a fresh set of emails and stashing them in the bottom of the case. ‘Printing them to read at home?’ I asked.

He looked at me with a gleam in his eye. ‘No.’

‘Well, to read on the way home, then?’

‘No. I’ll let you into a secret. I won’t look at them,’ he said.

‘But surely you need to see what people have written? They’re all urgent!’ I protested.

‘They stay there. And after two weeks, I’ll throw them away.’

‘But they’re all urgent!’ I said again.

‘If they’re that urgent, they’ll chase me up. If they haven’t chased me, they aren’t that urgent,’ he said.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with emails. It’s the same as the early days of the last Gulf War.

American troops had aircraft, they had satellites, they had men on the ground, and they had data coming in from all these resources. Too much. They couldn’t cope with the amount of data coming in, they didn’t have the intelligence staff to read it and assess what was important and what wasn’t. In the end there was a decision taken to ignore some inputs just so that they could make sense of it all.

We have the same information overload from emails now. I have now learned to take Mike Haslam’s advice and ignore the bulk of emails that I receive. Because most of it is dross.

And so one French Chief Exec has today earned my respect for saying what is probably blatantly obvious to so many, but it took one clear-sighted fellow to see it and point out the waste of time that email has become.

6 Responses to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Daily Michael, I grow more grumpy when I see my email inbox filled with promotional crap from various companies I may or may not have dealt with in the past. The other thing that gets my goat are the number of spam emails from folk, purporting to be my email provider, asking me to re-stablish connection by offering up all my details like my password etc – not!


  2. I’ve learned to bite the bullet and delete anything that looks interesting but probably not worth my time. I have to bet on the idea that it’s probably not worth my time; otherwise I’ll go nuts trying to read it all JUST IN CASE it’s important. I appreciate what the man said — if it’s that important, they’ll find me.

    I especially like the point about the Gulf War. Problem is, if it WAS important, they’re liable to get slashed-n-burned for ignoring it. As in all the clues supposedly leading to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. By the way, can it really be seventy years today? I grew up with that shadow, and now it’s seventy years ago?!


  3. Paul says:

    I recall reading a commentary about information overload and the harm it would do to society. The author, whom I can’t recall at the moment, said that “TMI” was coming at us and how harmful it was. The strange thing is that the author was addressing a 19th century audience. We have not yet realized that we are being overloaded, more than in the 19th century, and that we have become less and less discerning not to mention less knowledgeable of subject matter in depth while we skim along multitasking as we go. BTW, it was wonderful to hear a gentleman I was in discussion with today mention that his young daughter had been exposed to “older” versions of literature and found it refreshing and more informative than “new” versions.


    • Not surprised about older literature, I have to admit! Modern writing is focused by publishers towards specific genres and targeted groups, which leaves little space for imagination. I still love Tom Jones as a relaxing romp which shows my age!


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