Holding Email To Account

iStock_000009664896XSmallEveryone has their own personal pet hate about email. Unlike many people, mine is not the volume of messages received, because I’m quite good at quickly filtering the signal from the noise. What I dislike most about email is quite the opposite – it’s the messages I don’t receive. There is nothing more frustrating than asking someone a question via email and never getting a response, or receiving it a week later when I’ve already had to compensate for the fact I’m not going to get an answer.

I don’t expect people to be replying to their email every hour – it is not realistic to expect such rapid responses. But I do think that one business day (two at most) has become established as a convention for acceptable response time.

Of course, as usual the root of the problem is not email itself – it is a lack of good communication habits from the recipient. If the sender has shown you the courtesy of not interrupting you on a highly disruptive channel like phone or instant message, then the least you can do is return that courtesy, even if it is to say “I can’t reply until next week”.

But, like so many other aspects of communication, email does little to help people break those bad habits. Unanswered emails become easier to forget as new messages force them further down the inbox.  I usually find that if I don’t get an answer within 2 working days, I probably never will unless I chase the recipient.

Conventions such as read replies and due dates on email messages which could potentially mitigate these problems have never been consistently applied by all clients and servers, so remain unreliable except in closed circles of users.

All of this leads to a lack of accountability in email. When you receive a message, there is little in an email client that compels or encourages you to reply in a timely fashion, or even read it. There’s an example of this concerning James Murdoch, the former CEO of News International in an earlier article in this series. But perhaps an even more shocking illustration of the problem concerns George Entwhistle, former Director General of the BBC.

In October 2011 Jimmy Savile, one of the best known British TV presenters of the 1970s and 80s, died. In the year following his death, it emerged that he was also one of the most prolific child abusers in British history, with more than 400 alleged victims. What makes the story all the more horrific was that for years, he “hid in plain sight” – many people suspected him of this, and he even joked about it. But as a result, no one took it seriously until after he died.

Shortly after his death, the BBC Newsnight programme was planning a documentary feature on allegations against Savile. This was dropped at the last minute, and only came to public attention when ITV broadcast a similar documentary in late 2012. This led to allegations that the BBC had dropped the programme to cover up the fact that many of the offences are alleged to have taken place on their premises, and because the programme would conflict with two tributes that were broadcast at Christmas 2011.

As a result of the mismanagement of the crisis, George Entwhistle was forced to resign after just 54 days in the job of Director General.  The BBC commissioned an independent inquiry into the Savile case, which reported in December 2012. There were many criticisms of BBC management in the report, all as a result of incompetence rather than conspiracy, but the most extraordinary finding was around the question of whether Entwhistle knew about the allegations against Savile back in October 2011.

It emerged that two BBC senior managers had emailed Entwhistle telling him about Savile’s “darker side”; Entwhistle claimed he never read these emails.

This is simultaneously both shocking and entirely believable. I suspect that the Director General of the BBC receives a huge number of email messages, and inevitably misses some of them. Even so, you would have thought that the senior managers sending the emails would have wanted to ensure their messages were read rather just assuming they were. Clearly, there were personal communication failures that email’s lack of accountability allowed to go unchecked.

Similarly, SAC’s Steven Cohen’s defence against an indictment of insider trading is that he didn’t read the email containing the information he is alleged to have illegally acted upon. The same thing is happening around the world on a daily basis although usually with much less high-profile results. “I didn’t get the email” has become the modern-day version of “the cheque’s in the post”.

Little surprise then that the last year or two has seen the emergence of a number of task management systems designed to inject some accountability into business communication. These range from simple to-do list apps to full-blown project management systems. Features vary, but it is common for each task to have an explicit due date, a list of assignees and a record of the completion status for each assignee. Some also have explicit acceptance steps to ensure that the assignee immediately acknowledges what they have been asked to do, rather than waiting until they have completed the task before the sender receives any sort of reply.

Such systems offer vastly improved accountability and much greater efficiency in getting work done, because there is a clearer picture of who is expected to do what and by when. However, like many other new communication tools, they contribute to another problem – fragmentation of corporate knowledge. This will be the subject of the next article.

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