Reflecting a trend that could greatly aid overwhelmed educators and administrators, a handful of new technology companies are springing up to deal with the problem of eMail overload, which is now often considered a much bigger workplace problem than traditional eMail spam.
eMail in-boxes in a growing number of schools and other institutions are overflowing these days, partly because of what some are calling “colleague spam”—that is, too many people are indiscriminately hitting the “reply to all” button or copying their co-workers on trivial messages, such as inviting 100 colleagues to partake of brownies in the kitchen. A good chunk of today’s eMails also are coming from brand-new sources, like social and business networking sites such as Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp., or text messages forwarded from cell phones.
To date, school employees have largely dealt with the problem manually. Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in California, has resorted to ignoring his eMail, especially if it “doesn’t have an interesting title or [is] not from someone I know,” he says. Though some important messages might not get the quick attention they need, Liebman says, ignoring eMail “is a survival strategy in a busy world.”
Others, such as Keith Krueger, chief executive of the Consortium for School Networking, find themselves working well outside of normal work hours—even while on vacation—just to get up to speed. In this day and age, “you never are away from the office,” Krueger says.
“These people are in pain,” says Matt Brezina, the 26-year-old co-founder of San Francisco’s Xobni Corp., which tries to help people better organize and search the eMail and personal contact load they already have.
To do so, Xobni’s product places a set of features on top of a customer’s eMail in-box, such as “profiles” of online contacts (complete with photos) and quick links to set up appointments. The nine-person company says it has about 1,000 people globally testing the product, including salespeople, recruiters, and marketing managers who use eMail frequently, and expects to release it broadly early next year.
Other new companies, such as Silicon Valley start-ups ClearContext of San Francisco and Seriosity Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., are specifically tackling the problem of internal eMail overload.
ClearContext, founded in 2003, regularly charges $89.95 for its main software product, which uses algorithms to quickly analyze a user’s eMail to determine which contacts and messages are the most important. A message from someone who is already listed in a user’s Outlook contact list, and to whom a user usually responds very quickly (think spouse or boss), is deemed critical and might be marked in red.
But messages from others—such as those who usually include the user in a big group of recipients, and to whom the user doesn’t respond often—might be marked in blue or black. The color-coding helps people quickly see which messages they should respond to first. Users also can have certain eMail messages automatically redirected away from their in-box, and they can pick their own colors for incoming messages and customize the software in other ways.
Other ClearContext functions include the capability to quickly archive important messages and create audit trails. The software also lets the user hit one button on a message to move it to a folder holding documents related to a specific case, rather than having to manually drag and drop the message with a computer mouse.
Of course, tools like ClearContext’s assume the people using them are already fairly organized and are prone to filing their messages away, instead of just letting them pile up, says Microsoft general manager William Kennedy.
Some educators, such as Bob Moore, executive director of information technology at Kansas’ Blue Valley Schools, consider the emerging software solutions unnecessary. He recommends those who use Microsoft Exchange or Outlook simply use the organizational functions built into the software to “create multiple folders, have messages automatically go into certain folders, or flag items for follow-up.”
Moore believes “people have created the [eMail] problem for themselves [owing] to bad habits,” and he says some simple steps can help in drastic ways.
For instance, work eMail should not be used to sign up for unnecessary e-newsletters, Moore says. He also recommends that educators make sure all messages are as clear and complete as possible before sending, because “sending a poorly written, incomplete message will result in many questions back for clarification.” And when you respond to a message, he says, “wait until you have all the information to send a complete response.”
Undisciplined people who are not effective communicators will inevitably be overwhelmed with eMail, he says, adding: “Software will not help.”