E-mail rings true for businesses

About 15 years ago, Kathryn Everest, a knowledge management consultant, made a phone call that seemed to upset one of her clients at a government agency in Alberta.

Unsure what she had done to offend the client, she asked for an explanation for the odd behaviour and received an unexpected answer: the government agency used e-mail for all its internal communications, and only picked up the phone for emergencies. The client wasn’t offended, just not used to corresponding on the phone.

“She was expecting that I was having some type of emergency – why would I be phoning?” said Everest, who works for Business Consulting Services with IBM Canada Corp. in Toronto.

Today, such a response would hardly be shocking. The results of a recent survey by KRC Research Inc. show that 44 per cent of Canadians, including Everest, pick e-mail as their workplace communication medium of choice.

The survey, E-mail Use Survey: Survey of “Professional E-mail Users” in the United States and Canada, polled 1,000 users, 500 in Canada and 500 in the U.S., and was sponsored by Oracle Corp.

The study showed that the phone ranked number two (28 per cent) as the primary form of workplace communication for Canadians. Face-to-face meetings were the next most popular at 15 per cent, followed by inter-office mail at three per cent, fax at three per cent, instant messenger (IM) at three per cent and teleconferencing at two per cent.

Fifty-three per cent of Canadians respondents said e-mail makes them more productive and they can’t live without it, in comparison to 59 per cent of U.S. respondents. Thirty-six per cent of respondents said it didn’t make a difference in their productivity, compared to 33 per cent of Americans. Only nine per cent said it makes them less productive versus seven per cent in the U.S.

“With over 35,000 employees, doing things by inter-office memo or picking up the phone isn’t practical,” said Michael Edmonds, a spokesperson for the BMO Financial Group Inc. in Toronto. “We find that playing telephone tag to convey simple pieces of information can often reduce productivity, and that e-mail is a very effective tool to get messages out to a wide range of individuals.”

One British CEO disagrees. John Caudwell, CEO of Phones4U.co.uk, banned his 2,500 employees from using e-mail to communicate internally with each other, claiming that it was a drain on productivity. He said the ban will add three extra hours a day of work time, and that employees will have to rely on face-to-face meetings or the telephone to conduct business. Employees can still use e-mail to communicate with outside clients.

However, this approach seems to be too radical for Canadians.

“E-mail in some form or another has existed for three decades, and the fact that in the past eight or 10 years criminals have decided to abuse it [isn’t a good reason to ban it],” said Neil Schwartzmann, chair of the Canadian Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE) in Montreal.

Both Everest and Edmonds agreed that in large organizations it isn’t practical to confine communication to the phone or to the boardroom. But both also agreed there is a dark side to e-mail – the sheer volume users receive, not only of legitimate mail, but spam as well.

Schwartzmann said that anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of e-mail is spam. With the recent surge in e-mail-borne viruses, that number has reached 70 per cent for some users. Both IBM Canada and BMO Financial Group use sophisticated filters to weed out detrimental e-mail, although volumes remain high.

About one-quarter of total respondents said they would receive more than 200 e-mails while on a two-week vacation, with two per cent of Canadians saying they would get more than 1,000, compared to five per cent of American respondents.

According to the KRC survey, one-fifth of Canadians said it would take up to one hour to take care of their e-mail, voicemail and fax messages after returning from a two-week holiday. An equal number said it would take them between one and two hours and 19 per cent said between two hours and half a day. Sixteen per cent said it would take them between half a day and full day, and an unlucky 17 per cent said it would take more than a day.

“I know people who receive 200 pieces of e-mail a day and can spend hours or the whole day just clearing e-mail,” Everest said.

The solution, she said is through implementing policies and training employees to use e-mail correctly.

“People, for example, use e-mail to [send] large files, when perhaps a shared collaborative space would be better for that. People also use it for problem solving, when perhaps setting up a user group space would be a better solution,” she said. “It’s about teaching people to use the right tool for the job.”