Email: option vs. obligation

When you receive an email message, do you believe that you have an option regarding whether to respond or not? Or do you have an obligation to take action?

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At Dachis Group’s Social Business Summit 2011 in London, Stuart McRae from IBM had this to say: “sending an email does not obligate the recipient to act or even read it.” His colleague Luis Suarez is into his fourth year without email. These are two people employed by an organization much larger than most and somehow they can function with limited to no email. But you and I can’t. Why? Because almost everyone approaches email with a default set to obligation, not option.

Consider these three examples:

  • Two years ago, market research company Nielsen removed the reply-to-all function from their corporate email client. The reason: it was a good suggestion “to eliminate bureaucracy and inefficiency” accepted by the Nielsen Executive Council.
  • Microsoft researcher danah boyd takes annual email sabbaticals to avoid returning from vacation to “an overwhelming and unmanageable list of To Dos.”
  • Venture capitalist Fred Wilson has experienced great financial success but has declared email bankruptcy many times. He is the digital Sisyphus: “the more efficient I get with email, the more of it that comes in.”

All of these examples have obligation at root cause. Users care deeply about their inbox and the content therein. Although social networks, instant messaging, wikis, and other tools have shown promise in handling varied forms of communication, email has 100% adoption in most workplaces. Email is the primary channel for today’s business communication and professionals assume an “obligation mindset” in response.

If we switch to an “option mindset” instead, what happens? Is that even possible…or desirable?

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