Would you bet your life on email?

Email is critical part of company infrastructure and business processes, yet it is so structureless. This lack of structure is what makes it so ubiquitous — it’s easy to use it for everything. However, it can be extremely unreliable where strict business workflows must be followed.

If your life depended on it, would you choose email as your preferred method of communications? Too many things can go wrong, at both the sending and receiving ends, and I’m not talking about purely technical glitches.

How easy is it to accidentally delete someone from the list of recipients, or mistype someone’s name or address so that it goes to John Doe instead of John Smith?

Now compare this relative fragility with the potential damage it can cause. It boggles the mind. Here’s an example from earlier this year:

E-mail glitch hides $4B in Air Force deals

New employee made a routing error

The U.S. Air Force said a new employee’s e-mail routing error kept the Pentagon and the public in the dark about nearly $4 billion of its contracts in December.

Lost in space had been more than $1.57 billion awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp., $1.22 billion for The Boeing Co., and almost $509 million for Lockheed Martin Corp., among others.

“It’s awfully embarrassing,” said Air Force spokeswoman Jean Schaefer. The contracts at issue totaled $3.98 billion and covered projects ranging from remotely piloted Global Hawk aircraft to F-22A fighter jets, she said.

The Air Force employee inadvertently dropped the Defense Department from the e-mail distribution list for the contracts after moving into the new job on Dec. 1, Schaefer said.

[Computerworld, February 14, 2006]

So how can we mitigate the risks?

If you have an important procedure that must be executed to perfection whenever it is triggered, don’t rely on bare-bones free-form email. If your organization does not already have a system for managing such workflows, you can use a simple document template to prevent trivial errors from causing extensive damage. Create a document to be used as a checklist whenever the procedure needs to be executed.

At execution time, the document will be shuttled between the players, each one performing a pre-defined task towards completing the process.

I’ve found that the most efficient format is to divide the document into sections. Each section contains instructions to a specific person (either explicitly identified by name, or unambiguously referred to by their job title), as well as fields for them to insert any information that is needed for later steps.

Keeping the instructions inside the workflow has the following advantages:

  • It refreshes people’s minds about what they need to do, without them having to refer to an external source.

  • It provides just-in-time training for new hires about the procedure, i.e. learn by doing.

  • It documents execution of the workflow for record-keeping (or CYA) purposes.

The instructions to each participant must state clearly:

  1. what the participant is expected to do,

  2. how they “pass the buck,”

  3. to whom they should pass said buck.

When people are presented with clear instructions to play their part in a self-evidently organized process, it is much easier to get them to cooperate, especially if they can see exactly how the process depends on them. This is true, even if the trigger suddenly lands in their inbox with no prior warning.

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2 responses to “Would you bet your life on email?

  1. I don’t think you should bet your life on it. I think email should be used as well as a follow-up phone call on all important matters should an email response not follow.

  2. Email when critical need to have a confirmation attached from receiver.

    Using more close loops like the old challenge and response system ensures email remains closed circuit and only for critical updates.

    I think social should be used for less important communication and take place of email in that way.

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