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Maybe e-mail isn't such a great idea, after all

Management consultant Ken Siegel says e-mail has become the perfect way to avoid solving problems, according to columnist Tom Regan.

Ken Siegel doesn't beat around the bush. He doesn't like e-mail.

"I don't even have an e-mail account," he says. "When I tell that to the executives I work with, first they look at me with surprise, and then they look at me with envy."

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Dr. Siegel, a psychologist and president of Impact Group, management consultants in Los Angeles, is on a bit of a crusade. He wants there to be less e-mail in the world. So he's helping his business clients organize activities such as a "no e-mail Friday" in order to increase productivity.

That's right: increase productivity.

"E-mail is not a communication device, it's a broadcasting device," says Siegel. "It will actually truncate communication. And in the truest sense of the word, it has become a psychological dependency. We have convinced ourselves that we can't live without it."

E-mail takes up more and more of our time at work, according to Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif., research and consulting firm. E-mails sent by a company's workers are projected to increase 27 percent this year, to an average of 47 a day – up from 37 a day in 2006. And that's not the upper ranks of a company, where even more e-mails can accumulate.

The question then becomes "Do we really want our company to be spending so much of its time doing something that ultimately isn't productive?"

But how can we live without it?

Take, for example, my full-time job at National Public Radio. I get e-mails nonstop all day long: e-mails about stories, e-mails from human resources, e-mails about people looking for lost Blackberrys or books that they left in a recording booth, e-mails purportedly from high-ranking folks in Nigeria who want to give me lots of money, e-mail about.... You get the picture.

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I can almost hear Siegel smiling on the phone as I recite this litany. He's obviously heard this before. "And how many of those e-mails are you really glad you got?"

Truthfully? Not all of them, for sure.

That's his point exactly. Siegel says people need to consider how much e-mail adds "to the value of their days." Most of the executives he works with say they spend two to three hours a day on e-mail (about 150 to 250 messages) and on average only 16 to 19 percent of those messages met the value-added criterion.

Siegel is also blunt about another use for e-mail.

"E-mail has become the 21st century's 'cover your butt' technique of choice," he says. "It's also become the interpersonal coward's device of choice."

People will send e-mail as a way to avoid dealing with an issue, by pointedly not dealing with it in a quick, prompt manner, he says. If you have a problem that needs to be solved quickly, e-mail is almost always the worst way to approach that solution.

And the problem has grown worse as more and more businesses expect employees to use personal digital assistants such as Blackberrys and Treos. Once upon a time, we only had to worry about e-mail when we were at our desks. Now it follows us around, virtually tugging at our sleeves, demanding that we pay attention.

When Siegel works with business executives, he tries to give them strategies to tame the digital beast and get more value from their work.

Thus "No e-mail Fridays" were born. But it was not a painless birth for many who tried it. In a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, training and consulting firm, supported the idea of no e-mail one day a week. But she included a warning: "When you try to take e-mail away from some users, they're going to panic."

Panic? I would expect riots.

Ever seen people with their Blackberrys? It's like watching Pavlov's dog. The moment the stimulus is given (an e-mail arrives), the response is provoked: "Must answer now!"

Siegel agrees that it's not easy. But the benefit, he says, is – yes – increased productivity once you get over those initial panic attacks.

Siegel says once people can't rely on e-mail, problems are solved more quickly. An e-mail string that might bounce back and forth in six to 12 messages over a day or two sometimes can be solved with a 10-minute face-to-face meeting. And that face-to-face thing actually improves relationships.

Siegel offers other ideas. One executive he worked with started blocking all messages on which he was cc'd. After a while, people realized that if they wanted this executive to help solve an issue, they would have to talk to him in person.

Siegel knows that e-mail is a part of our working world now, and there's no turning back. But he also believes that it's time we grabbed the e-mail bull by its horns and wrestle it into submission. E-mail should not dictate how we operate at work, or even at home, he says.

"E-mail is a tool with clear and viable uses and benefits," Siegel concludes. "Communication isn't one of them. Businesses and individuals need to set guidelines when it should be used and when it shouldn't be used. And we'll all be better off once we do it."