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Email mountains are awful; some of the alternatives are worse

Pilita Clark’s column in the FT this week was about being overwhelmed by email.

We have reached the point where the benefits of communication are being outweighed by a dispiriting loss of production.

This was confirmed by a Microsoft report last month that found workers around the world are struggling to keep up with a “crush of data, information and always-on communications”.

The research showed people are spending 57 per cent of their workday on email, meetings and other communication but just 43 per cent on productive creation.

I worry that the solution to this view of the problem actually makes things worse. In my own area of work, there is a constant push—for example—to replace written reports with online ‘dashboards.’ This would, no doubt, shift the classification of the work from being ‘communication’ to something ‘productive’, even though the actual task that is being accomplished is the same thing—just often less efficiently, because dashboards often lack clear commentary and so require lots of people to consider data separately to reach the same conclusion. The communication becomes less efficient, but feels more ‘productive’.

I think the “crush of data” is the bigger problem than the deluge of emails. We’ve reached a strange point where people have concluded that data is transparency, whereas it is often actually obfuscation. I can, in no time at all, produce statistics on the number of notified cases of certain infectious diseases. But this explains very little: declining cases might be a ‘bad thing’ if they are likely to reflect poor access to healthcare or a problem with testing. Increasing cases might be a ‘good thing’ if they reflect work done to target high-risk populations. A dashboard is often much less helpful than an explanatory paragraph, even if one of those things looks ‘productive’ and the other looks like ‘communication’.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Technology, , .

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