E-mail bankruptcy is just too expensive

at-symbol-120.jpgI didn’t check e-mail very often over the holidays, and when I did it took all of 15 minutes to whittle through the 150 or so (mostly spam) that landed in my inbox. Either our filters here at work are performing better than ever or other people are deciding it’s best to wait until I’m back at the daily grind.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s was also a good time to catch up on the annual lists that newspapers and magazines tend to compile, and this year the New York Times ran one, called Buzzwords 2007, which included a term that was new to me: e-mail bankruptcy. Although credited to Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, the NYT said he more likely merely popularized the notion of deleting or ignoring a very large number of e-mail messages after falling behind in reading and responding to them. The Washington Post traced the term back to an MIT prof in 1999, but that’s not really the point. E-mail bankruptcy is another way of talking about information overload. Specifically, it’s a response that could bring some companies to their knees.

E-mail bankruptcy is a way of virtually throwing up your hands and walking away from information that in many cases needs to be managed. You can understand how a professor might get away with it (poor pity his students), but in many enterprise environments bankruptcy just isn’t an option. Imagine sending out a mass message to clients, partners and coworkers informing them that the monkey is now on their back. In other words, all the questions about projects or sales contracts or requests for information become loose ends that everyone else has to tie up on their own. For most business users, this is unacceptable behaviour, and rightly so.

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