Email-me Elmo

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I must: we used the TV as a babysitter this past weekend.

During a particularly busy morning packing up at the cottage, I decided, instead of actively playing with him non-stop as my wife or I usually do, to offer him the rare chance to watch television. This doesn’t happen in our house normally, but I figured this was a vacation and we could loosen up a little. My wife had got a Sesame Street video for the occasion, which seemed relatively harmless. Then came a segment with Elmo who was seated – not with his friends, nor talking directly to viewers – in front of a desktop. It was kind of gold and glittery, but it was still a regular PC with a CRT monitor.

“Oh, look!” Elmo cried suddenly. “An e-mail from Big Bird and Snuffelupagus! Elmo LOVES e-mail!”

It was kind of touching, almost. Who gets that excited over e-mail, I wondered. Then I remembered: everyone does, when they get their first message. I may not have exclaimed aloud over it, but I remember a frisson of energy when I saw someone trying to communicate through my inbox when I was still in university. Those first few weeks, in fact, where a series of enjoyable visits to the computer lab where I could access my e-mail account (yes, I’m aware I’m dating myself here) and keep up with my new electronic pen pals (which is how I described them to myself at the time – another anachronism).

All that changed, of course, once I was in the workforce and managing an inbox took up an inordinate amount of my daily life. I expect the same is true for most information workers. But when was the last time anyone in an IT department experienced someone enthusing over an application or a device that they were given as part of their office toolset? In some cases the answer may be never, because some companies are so slow to adopt new technologies that by the time they arrive employees are already impatient to get using the same kind of software or hardware they are already using at home.

Should IT managers strive for the Elmo effect? Porbably not. For one thing, it’s not really sustainable. Elmo may be able to whoop it up every time he gets a new message, but he gets paid the big puppet bucks for that. It’s also not the point. Excitement over technology may be symptomatic of the “IT for IT’s sake” mentality that has led to poor purchasing decisions in the past (and maybe in the present, too). In fact, there are times when poorly-informed senior executives get really excited about technology – I’m thinking about social networking – when you know you’re in for nothing but trouble.

Instead, imagine Elmo, or just a regular human being, quietly turning on their desktop and checking their e-mail. What you would probably see is an inscrutable poker face. But what are they feeling, or more importantly, what should IT departments hope they are feeling? Trust that the system will be available and functional, hopefully. Confident in how to access the features they require, certainly. And perhaps, as they focus on the contents of the message and begin solving problems that this advanced technology presents to them, a different kind of excitement, a more subtle but ultimately deeper kind of happiness. Maybe Elmo will experience that one day. If he ever grows up.


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