Saturday, January 10, 2009

Push vs. Pull or Why company mailing lists are evil

Everybody that works for a large organization knows the semi Observer anti-pattern. In some form or another at least. It works like this: The Big Boss thinks that you need to know, so he pushes information to you through email. He is too lazy to push this corporate spam to all personnel individually so you get added to a list automatically. At least some of your bosses don't know that there is such a thing as BCC so soon all personnel knows all the lists they are on.

The next step is that people start holding discussions using the email addresses for those lists. I've seen these types of discussions spiral out of control in different firms I've worked for. This causes unreasonable load and distraction for the employees and can even cause the whole email system to collapse under the strain. I can tell you this is not the first time something like this has happened.

What makes this behavior unforgivable, is that there is such a simple solution.

Use RSS or newsgroups to let people subscribe to replacements for these lists and clearly separate directed communications (to a few people) from news and open discussions. By using this simple solution (and working for a company that actually does this right), I've managed to reduce my incoming email by 80%. It is still some work to go through all the mails after a few days of inactivity, but the thing is it is not absolutely impossible anymore. The other immensely satisfying improvement is that most mail I get I actually want to read.

I do have thousands of unread items piling up in my RSS reader and nntp client, but those I know I can safely discard when they get stale. They don't eat up disk space and I can always search them.

There are reasons to keep lists in the company anyway. For example some employees are too lazy or stupid to subscribe to RSS lists and newsgroups, if you are legally required to send out a communique an email push might come in handy. In those cases: use BCC. If something should not be done, make it impossible. Guidelines for Reply-All and the pleas and threats to follow them are just more unneccesary noise.

So bosses all over the world, if you read this: be smart and stop spamming your employees, they hate you for it and they're right.

I saw another complaint about many emails in general. I bet that this guy is subscribed to his own blog using email. He ends his post with:
If you are the person with the idea to save us all, send me an email and tell me all about it. Actually, strike that. Drop by my house and tell me all about it. I don’t want your message to get lost in my inbox
I'm not a venture capitalist, but still the difference is striking: my mailbox is completely read, and I spend less than an hour a day to keep it that way.

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