You've got mail

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Vitacca
  • 393d Bomb Squadron
In 1993, America Online and Delphi Electronics connected their proprietary email services to the Internet. 

This was the beginning of email as we know it today. 

Now, only 15 years later we rely on email and other forms of information technology to the point where they are so ingrained into the fabric of the military, as well as our personal lives, that we are hard pressed to function without them. 

Email has given us unfettered access to anyone on the global address server, from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force to the newest recruit at basic training. However, as it is with all things, with the good comes the bad. 

While email can enable quick dissemination of information, undisciplined use of email has the potential to grind productivity to a halt, causing us all countless hours of valuable time trying to filter through the long list of messages that assault our in-boxes every day. 

In his article "The threat from within: E-mail overload degrades military decision making" in the Sept. 2008 Armed Forces Journal, Col. Peter Marksteiner describes this phenomenon and goes on to provide several useful hints towards responsible email usage. The following are excerpts from his article. The entire article can be read at . 

If a technological or biological weapon were devised that could render tens of thousands of Defense Department knowledge workers incapable of focusing their attention on cognitive tasks for more than 10 minutes at a time, joint military doctrine would clearly define the weapon as a threat to national security. 

Indeed, according to the principles of network attack under Joint Publication 3-13, 

"Information Operations (IO)," anything that degrades or denies information or the way information is processed and acted upon constitutes an IO threat. That same publication cautions military leaders to be ever-vigilant in protecting against evolving technologically based threats. 

Yet throughout the Defense Department and the federal government, the inefficient and undisciplined use of technology by the very people technology was supposed to benefit is degrading the quality of decision-making and hobbling the cognitive dimension of the information environment. 

IO threats come in many different forms. Maybe it's a server-clogging 12 megabyte PowerPoint slide with an embedded photo of a tropical sunset inviting you to a retirement luncheon for someone you've never met. 

Perhaps it's the eighth volley of a "reply to all" e-mail chain recounting a discussion that's irrelevant to you and 47 of the other 50 CC'd addressees. Or it could be the important deadline you overlooked because the task and due date were buried somewhere in the middle of a rambling narrative, the subject line of which failed to differentiate it in any way from the inescapable rising tide of inconsequential flotsam already choking your inbox. 

We all receive too much e-mail. According to the Radacati Research Group, roughly 541 million knowledge workers worldwide rely on e-mail to conduct business, with corporate users sending and receiving an average of 133 messages per day -- and rising. 

While no open-source studies address how the Defense Department's e-mail volume compares to corporate users', my own anecdotal experience and that of legions of colleagues suggests a striking similarity.

Without fail, they report struggling every day to keep up with an e-mail inbox bloated with either poorly organized slivers of useful data points that must be sifted like needles from stacks of nonvalue-adding informational hay or messages that are completely unrelated to any mission-furthering purpose. 

E-mail is a poor tool for communicating complex ideas. ... Moreover, aside from its qualitative shortcomings and viral-like reproductive capacity, a growing body of research suggests e-mail's interruptive nature is perhaps the most pressing threat to decision-making in the cognitive dimension. 

Interruptions are carcinogenic to complex decision making. Cheri Speier, associate professor of information systems at Michigan State University, explains that "more frequent interruptions are likely to place a greater processing load on the decision-maker. Each interruption requires a recovery period where reprocessing of some primary task information occurs. 

Consequently, the number of recovery periods, the recovery time and likelihood of errors all increase as the frequency of interruption increases." Gloria Mark, who teaches informatics at the University of California, Irvine, found that knowledge workers spend an average of only 11 minutes on a project before being interrupted. 

According a recent study conducted by Basex Inc., an IT business consultancy whose work on information overload has repeatedly been featured in national media, "the majority of knowledge workers ... tend to open new e-mail immediately or shortly after notification, rather than waiting until they have a lull in their work." 

The latest Basex observation comports with other study results, including AOL's 2007 Third Annual E-mail Addiction Survey, which found people check e-mail around the clock. Fifty-nine percent of those with portable devices check every time a new e-mail arrives. 

Basex says interruptions already consume about 28 percent of the average knowledge worker's day, and e-mail-driven interruptions continue to increase, contributing to an estimated $650 billion a year in lost productivity for U.S. companies. 

While volumes have been written on fixing the e-mail problem, at the risk of over generalizing, the nuts and bolts of a sensible e-mail policy should include the following: 

1. Any tasker or suspense transmitted via e-mail must include (1) a word such as "task" or "suspense" or some other service-specific buzz phrase that informs the recipient the correspondence requires action, and (2) a clearly identified date by which the response is due. 

2. If the text of the e-mail is four lines or more, it must include a "bottom line up front (BLUF)" or "summary" or similar phrase, no more than two lines, that gives the recipient a general overview of what the correspondence contains. For example, a lengthy note requesting an opinion on a draft regulation or publication might contain a BLUF, right under the salutation, which reads: "request your input(s) on attached draft regulation NLT 15 Sep 08." Details of the request, format of the desired response, etc., can then follow in additional narrative. 

3. A recipient should never have to open an attachment to discover what the substance of the correspondence is. For example, a lunch invitation or proposed organizational course of action described in a PowerPoint slide must be accompanied by text in the e-mail that describes who, what, when, where, etc., so that the recipient can prioritize the correspondence without having to open one or more attachments. 

4. Transmitting via "reply to all" or to address groups should be done sparingly, and correspondence should never be forwarded to address groups without a short BLUF or overview that allows recipients to assess very quickly whether additional attention is required. For example, award solicitations for all sorts of categories of personnel are routinely group forwarded to entire installation address groups with introductions such as "FYSA" or "for your attention." A subject line and BLUF saying something such as "solicitation for pilot of the year award" would minimize the cognitive interruption visited on nonflying recipients of such correspondence. 

5. If the rules continue to permit e-mail use for unofficial purposes, such as digital water-cooler discussions or unofficial lunch invitations, those e-mails should be highlighted with the little blue down arrow provided in Microsoft Outlook, or some other immediately recognizable identifier that tells the recipient, "If you don't read this, there will be no mission impact." Information overload is the digital age's fog and friction. Misused and overused e-mail degrades the quality of decision-making and denies knowledge workers access to the right information because the unstructured environment forces them to attempt to digest so much information. The scope of the impact of information overload is difficult to assess, but the fact that it's having an impact -- a profoundly negative one -- seems incontrovertible.

If you actually made it this far in the article you must have found some truths in the words above.
I know I personally spend too much time reading e-mail each day. If followed, the five simple rules listed above could prevent missed suspense's and/or save us all hours of valuable time.
Better yet, get up from your desk and go talk to the person across the room you are about to send an e-mail to.