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Email: Utility or Stupidity?

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This article first appeared in our TECHMANAGE newsletter
October 1997, Volume 1, Issue 5

Technology tools... as always, a blessing to some, a curse to others.

While some bemoan the intrusion and frivolity of the e-mail activity they see, let me describe how putting a cyber-spin on my communications - professional and personal - has simplified my life and saved me tons of money while at the same time freeing up precious extra moments to "stop and smell the roses."

And, lest you think otherwise, you are hereby informed that I do not fit the demographic profile of the typical cyber enthusiast... being of the "gentler" gender with plenty of gray hair that betrays my pre-boomer birth.

Saving time. Saving money. All while doing business "cheaper, faster, better." The Holy Grail of managers everywhere.

For me, e-mail epitomizes life in the fast lane...breaking down the barriers of time and space and opens up possibilities undreamed of 'way less than a generation ago. Remember when fax machines first came out? Wow. We were impressed with how we could send the written word or a diagram at the speed (and cost) of a phone call! And, the recipient would have a physical document that looked somewhat like the original, albeit a bit jagged and on funny "paper" that could withstand neither sunlight nor the ravages of time.

We've come a long way, you 'n me, baby.

Now, I collaborate electronically with clients, vendors and colleagues around the world... indifferent to time zones, to the cost, frequency and potential imposition of communication, and to the labor/logistics involved in editing text, graphics or databases. Here's a whirlwind tour of some of my favorite business cyber-interactions.

I fire up my e-mail program while downing my 3rd or 4th cup of java (sorry, techno-savvy readers). Aha! A research request from a long-time client in Osaka, sent a couple of hours ago. Quick turn-around. They need the latest 10K filings and some "quick and dirty" market size information for a dozen companies. Can I locate and deliver it to them in 48 hours? No contract, just budget. I press the RETURN button, type out "Sure thing" and shoot it back.

Total time? Under one minute -- reading AND replying. No paper, no international phone call, no mail-merge letter to write a formal acceptance. I have a time-stamped electronic file of his request and he has a copy of his original message at the bottom of my reply. Helpful in the event he reneges. Nah, he wouldn't do that. But if he did...

Later that same day, I download the requested information from various sites on the World Wide Web (for free!) and attach them to an e-mail message saying "Done deal; pay me." He's got two messages from me waiting when he logs on in the morning (after I've gone home for the day here in Chicago): (1) my acceptance and (2) the finished report. The funds are wired to our corporate account by the end of the week and we're both happy. Time and cost of the transaction part of the deal? Practically nil, on either side. Paper? Nope. Everything's safely tucked away on a Zip disk. He's got a copy, I've got a copy and no trees have died. If my client wanted, he could transmit exact duplicates of the report to any number of colleagues and never even have to fire up the copier.

Everyone talks about customer focus, customer delight, one-to-one marketing. What better way to get "share of mind" than to respect your customers' time, effort, overhead and need for information and communication than through a non-intrusive medium such as e-mail? It waits silently and patiently for the recipient to retrieve it and respond or not, as they wish. I've exchanged as many as seven messages with a client in a single day. He and I were both in and out of meetings that day; we'd never connect "live" by phone, voice messages would not have left an electronic "paper" trail for future reference and faxing would have been unduly cumbersome for both of us. Technological issues of security aside, the only eyes that see my e-mail messages are mine.

E-mail also saves me from myself. My desk isn't called The Black Hole on a whim. Incoming and outgoing messages are filtered into virtual folders and mailboxes automatically. Some folders are nested one inside the other, and I automatically sort messages by date, sender, subject and a bunch of other criteria with a single mouse click. Try doing that with bent, folded, stapled and otherwise mutilated pulp-based file folders, papers and sticky notes. Productivity improvement? Oh, yes indeedy.

On the subject of productivity, do you get reams of junk mail, or junk faxes? Well, getting rid of junk e-mail (or spam, in techno-lingo) is a pleasure. I've set up my filters tp send some span directly into the trash. For the others that do get through these virtual strainers, the trash can is a mouse click away, and I don't even have to reach over and toss it in. What fun!

Even more fun is the marketing benefit I get through our e-mail newsletter. It costs nothing for clients, colleagues, prospects -- or anyone, for that matter -- to subscribe, and very little to send. It's informative, stimulates inquiries, interactive discussion and visits to our Web site. It keeps us visible and has actually resulted in new business...and our forests remain intact.

On the personal side, e-mail's interactivity enables discussion ranging from the merely social to the absolutely sublime.

A relative in Breckenridge, a friend in London. Little notes saying hi, maybe an electronic musical postcard or a virtual bouquet.

There's my kid brother. We "talk" more now than ever. He e-mails me some great cyberjokes or I update him on family matters and next thing you know, we're talking by phone. Getting connected. Staying connected.

Then there's forming NEW connections via chats & discussion groups, all through the ubiquitous keyboard.

There's even room for the sublime. Let me tell you about a series of experimental on-line bible study groups I've participated in. Made up of Christians of all colors, ages, experience and location. Moderated by an American Baptist Pastor in Northern California; participants include a Pastor of a Free Methodist church in the U.K., a Catholic in Chicago, a recovering addict, ..... all united in the very personal search for spiritual growth. Subscribers, 160+, from South Korea to the Phillippines, New Zealand and the U.K. Within 3 days, there was trust enough that several participants asked their virtual friends for prayers and guidance. Powerful? Immeasurable value? You bet!

Don't get me wrong. E-mail is still an imperfect medium, designed by imperfect mortals. Its uses range from the sublime to the ridiculous. It can be your obedient servant (I like that, I like that a LOT) or it can enslave you. It can become an electronic tether - but only if you let it. (Just say NO!).

We are all connected (or will be, eventually) ... just not quite the way the telephone company expected.

Technology Management Associates, Inc.
(312) 984-5050jogucwa@techmanage.com

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