The inefficiency and inequity of e-mail distribution in large organizations
I’m off on holiday for the rest of the month so things will probably be quiet here until September, but before I go….
Here is post adapted from something I wrote a few years ago for an internal blog explaining my frustration with how large organizations handle distribution of important information by e-mail. Unfortunately things haven’t changed much so it’s worth posting here – and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t only apply to the United Nations!
Despite the new technologies that are now available to us, most information sharing in the UN (and many other large organizations) is still done by e-mail. Even official information is by default mainly distributed by e-mail.
Some of this mail is distributed by global broadcast message to all staff – and while it might at times be irritating to get messages about thing such as the closing of the cooling tower, or how to sign up for the pre-retirement programme – well, at least you know.
But many official announcements that are more important than these are distributed by a much more inefficient method. They are sent by the originating office to Directors, Regional Office Heads and Country Representatives who must then forward them on to their staff. I presume the idea is that heads of office are best placed to decide who should receive these messages and should take the responsibility for informing their staff.
While this is our common practice which we rarely question – it is both inefficient and inequitable for several reasons:
1. Heads of office, some of the busiest people in the UN with the biggest inboxes need to each take the time to review the e-mail and decide how it should be distributed in their office. Do they really have the time for this? and on what basis should they decide.
2. Perhaps because of this busyness and wide differences in the management styles of heads of offices – some offices distribute everything to all staff whereas some others don’t distribute anything at all with the full range of practice inbetween. Sometimes things don’t get distributed to staff simply because they fall between the cracks while the boss is travelling, on leave or otherwise preoccupied. Sometimes information is sent out to a few favoured individuals on a selective basis while others are kept in the dark.
3. The result of this is that some people are in the know and others aren’t – and this is not necessarily related to whether the information is relevant to them.
4. To make up for this there is a lot of e-mail sharing going on between colleagues who got things and those that didn’t, taking up yet more time. In some offices heads of office then distribute to heads of section who then decide if to distribute to staff, adding yet another layer of bureaucracy and another place for the message to get lost. Or worse this habit also fosters the idea “knowledge is power” doled out as favours.
And of course if you don’t have good friends in other offices you might just be out of luck.
Over the past week I know of three examples where because of the good sharing of my own bosses I knew something colleagues in other teams didn’t: one on a new global priority for the organization, another on some recent key staff changes in another office and yet another with information about an upcoming training opportunity and how to apply.
In all of these cases I found other colleagues who were unaware of them, and no good reason why I should know and they should not.
So what could usefully be done about this? If e-mail is the system everyone uses, then anything that could be shared with all staff should be shared by all staff even if it means more e-mails – then I can decide or not whether I want to read it. We shouldn’t overburden heads of office with the task of being mail carriers. At the very least there could be some system to allow people to subscribe to certain types of global messages so that they are all available, but I can pick which ones I receive (rather than someone else choosing for me).
But we also ought to make much more use of other means of broadcasting those messages which should be accessible to all. In addition to broadcast e-mails we have organizational intranet home pages which can have a latest news ticker, we have intranet bulletin boards and we have internal social networking tools like Yammer or Teamworks – if more people used these we could save a lot of e-mail (and disk space). Making all messages available online, and using online tools to allow people to subscribe to them, share them internally, and even to comment on them would be tremendous productivity boost as we reduce the amount of time taken by senior managers in acting as post boxes, and we eliminate the problem of people not knowing what they need to know because the information is stuck within the chain of command.
In summary: get the message out and let people decide for themselves what they want to read.
Bonus: Some further thoughts on how organizations can share important news more effectively here: “What if you had 10 minutes a day for organizational news”
Wishing you all a happy summer!