The Many Uses of Email

By Lisa Ricciuti posted 02-05-2015 14:44


Despite all the methods of communication email is still popular and has become as necessary as a phone number or mailing address.  Similar to calling somebody, email has become a standard mode of communication with the expectation being that everybody should have an email address. Email started out as a simple communication tool but is now used for much more than that.

In many ways, email has made my life easier.  It allows me to:

  • Contact people all over the world for free (or inexpensively)
  • Communicate with more than one person at a time
  • Document interactions (e.g. the highly prized CYA paper-trail)
  • Leave messages any time of day without bothering people

It was only when people started using it in alternative ways that things started to get messy, really messy.  Instead of looking for a different model email kept evolving to meet new demands and expectations such as:

  • Working collaboratively
  • Sending attachments
  • Keeping a conversation together for multiple people(e.g. thread)
  • Searching capabilities
  • Automating actions with rules
  • Integrating calendars and appointments, etc. 

It was almost possible to live in your email.  Some of these new demands were a natural fit for this mode of communication, while others stretched the limitations and made it seem really clunky.  For example, sharing digital photos through email was never a good solution.  The attachments are large to send and can quickly clog up an inbox making it problematic for both the sender and the recipient(s). 

The Challenging “Problem Child”

Email has now become a “problem child” for information management professionals.  But in a lot of ways, email gets a bad rap.  Email is not necessarily the problem.  It’s the way we use it and think about it that is the real issue.  Since email is a way to replace verbal communication, in some ways we want it to emulate qualities associated with having a conversation such as being able to seamlessly transition between topics, mixing personal and professional, and responding in the moment.  Although email is capable of doing these same things, it doesn’t do it as well and the end result is a large volume of poorly created emails, which makes the information management aspect challenging. 

I’ve attended a number of seminars and presentations about how to manage email more effectively.  It’s almost to the point of being treated like a separate entity of records management.  I was always taught that correspondence is not a separate records series because it’s always about something, or is part of a process related to records creation.  However, all of this seems to fall apart when it comes to email management. 

So what’s so different about email?  Why is it so challenging for us to manage? 

  1. Email is used for more than just correspondence. 
  2. People have grown to rely on email for any number of uses.

Through my many experiences as a RIM professional, I’ve noticed people using email for all kinds of things beyond its primary use for correspondence.  Although these alternative usages are so common that they are defining the new norm for using email.  People have come to rely on email for any number of functions, in addition to communication, including but not limited to reference, collaboration, storage, task management, mobile access, calendars & planning, and covering your bleep.  

I’ve even seen numerous inboxes and spoken with many people who seem to think it’s normal to either never empty their email trash (“just in case”) or who use the trash as a repository for reference materials.  Gmail even offers an option to store every email in an “All Mail” folder which, according to Google “is your archive, a storage place for all the mail you've ever sent or received, but have not deleted.”  I personally have never used or created a .pst folder, but this “All Mail” folder sounds pretty similar.  

Stay tuned for the next installment covering "Why Email is Still Popular" & "Making Foundation Changes".

Please read more in a free book from AIIM, What are the Uses of Email: Addressing the Challenges of Email Management

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