Sunday, May 22, 2016

Why we Can't Kill Email - The Essence of Knowledge Work

Knowledge vs manufacturing workflowI was thinking about Getting Things Done by David Allen and a course I had taken about Outlook best practices. The main idea behind both is this - Get it out of your brain by applying "The 4 Ds:"

  1. Do it now (in less than 2 minutes)
  2. Delegate it to someone else
  3. Defer it (to a date)
  4. Delete it
I have been tweaking how I implement this process over the years and have settled on a process which works for me:
  • Use email as a buffer to manage messages. 
    • Information from others usually comes in this way. I'll also email myself things that need to be dealt with as they come up.
  • Deal with the content of the email immediately, delete it or create / edit a task related to the content of the email. 
    • I will usually break down each task into multiple steps required to achieve the desired outcome to the degree possible at the time.
  • Use the task list as a work queue. 
    • I review the list regularly to understand everything that needs to be done and by when. 
    • I amend the details of each task to use as a record of communications and actions.
  • Put working blocks into my calendar based on the tasks.
    • Depending on the task scope and timeline, this means blocking out many chunks across many days. 
    • It ensures that I strike the right balance between standing meetings, appointments and the "real" work... If the balance is off, the calendar will bring that fact forward quickly.
This flow, I realized, is parallel to the flow used to manufacture goods in a factory:
  • Incoming materials are buffered in trucks and at the dock.
  • The materials are queued at the appropriate stations in the factory according to what they are used to  manufacture.
  • Processing is scheduled and performed.
  • The end result is shipped out (or re-queued for a subsequent process).
You don't have a manufacturing line that can't do these things: Buffer, queue, schedule.

Knowledge work is similar: communications are queued into tasks which then must be scheduled and performed.
The problem is that the overhead of working this way is high. It's "easier" to just remember what you heard, what you have to do and then do it.
Up to a point...
When there is too much to do this system breaks.

Email helps because it seamlessly buffers the communications and CAN be used as a task list. Email won't die because a reasonably low friction replacement that does the end-to-end job doesn't exist.
Chat clients don't replace email because email, as it is used at work, isn't about communication. It's about the entire Knowledge workflow.

Make the whole workflow better and you'll kill email (as it is used today).
Though, I suspect, if you make the workflow sufficiently good, you'll find that email is a friend, not an enemy.