Written by David Tebbutt, Strategy magazine 12/90 - scanned


n. singular. A process by which text messages are sent down telephone lines or across networks from one computer to another. Soon to include sound and video.

Written by David Tebbutt believes that e-mail brings speed, flexibility, and accuracy to communication. It can make your company more competitive, and also do wonders for company democracy.

THE UPSIDE: How many times in the last year has your company had to use a courier or special delivery to meet someone's deadline? How many times have you fumed as the post office has, once again, failed to deliver an important document?

As the pace of business life intensifies, so the traditional methods of communicating seem less and less adequate. Once, few could envisage a need for more than one telephone per company. Now, in many companies, there might be two or three phones to a desk. Once, the post office service was adequate for written communications. Now, most companies have at least one fax machine.

But although the fax has speeded information delivery, it has its drawbacks. It still uses paper, the machines need to be in direct contact with each other, and someone has to take the document to its recipient when it reaches the receiving machine.

This is one of the reasons people are increasingly using electronic mail a way of sending messages down the phone lines by computer.

Electronic mail (e-mail) overcomes many of the limitations of other forms of communication, not least because neither the sender nor the recipient have to be at their machines at the same time. Electronic mail works by storing messages in a computer to which both sender and recipient have access over the public telephone or a private network. It's a bit like a 'dead letterbox' where information is deposited at the convenience of the sender and collected when it suits the recipient.

The impact of e-mail on an organisation's working practices can be huge. Staff no longer have to be in the same office, building or country to work together.

Many major computer companies now give high quality support in the UK, despite their technicians being based on the west coast of America.

Technical problems can be resolved within 24 hours without either operation running up huge overtime bills or transatlantic telephone charges.

With e-mail, you can give a considered reply in just a few seconds of telephone or 'connect' time the trick is to prepare replies 'off line' before making the call.

Locally, staff can easily, and instantly, exchange messages. If done democratically, this 'flattens' the organisation. Information no longer climbs up and down the hierarchy, and if someone feels strongly about something, they can write directly to those concerned.

Ad hoc work groups can be created for individual projects without anyone moving their desk.

The flexibility that e-mail can bring to an organisation is tremendous. People preparing reports can work until the last moment, incorporating the latest information before they need to send them. A report due in London by 10am could be e-mailed from Edinburgh at 9:55 and still arrive in time.

Similar to e-mail, but not generally regarded as such, is electronic document interchange (EDI). This is the formal electronic exchange of business documents such as orders, invoices and payments. EDI has made 'just in time' deliveries a practicality for many manufacturing businesses.

A survey of National Computing Centre members suggests that "increasing competitive edge" and "cost reduction" are the two main reasons for using EDI.

All manual systems involve delays, and this is especially so if a computer is involved at each end of the process. I know computers are supposed to speed things up, but they can actually cause delays because information has to be keyed into the first computer and then a document produced.

This is then sent to the other company where it has to be re-keyed before it can be processed. Clearly, EDI brings both speed and increased accuracy.

Once the public telephone networks have been upgraded to high speed digital systems, we will be able to move audio and video information as easily as we now mail textual messages. A picture reputedly paints a thousand words, so imagine the information content of a video sequence.

Instead of someone in head office having to explain in words how to fix a problem, they could send the answer on video. Believe me, it won't be long before computers have built in cameras as a matter of course.

In this fast-moving world, the winning companies will be those which seize these technological developments with both hands.

THE DOWNSIDE: Companies which produce technological wonders often claim it will solve every problem. Electronic mail (e-mail) falls neatly into this category.

As David says in the facing column, e-mail has its benefits, and eventually they will be accepted in large organisations as normal business tools like the memo and the invoice.

But until then, there are problems. Some are serious technical standards problems which must be solved before e-mail is accepted. Other problems, which may at first seem cosmetic, carry hidden costs which sneak up treacherously from behind.

This latter group is significant As David says, e-mail enables a person to send a message to a computer which stores it for the recipient to read later. This can speed communication, but it can also hinder it.

E-mail uses written communication, which is impersonal. But people often view e-mail as a personal means of communication and use it even when face-to-face contact is possible. They may even use e-mail to send messages to people in the same office. This may seem unimportant, but impersonal communication can slow things down.

There are many stories of people spending several days passing increasingly vitriolic messages to each other about a problem which could have been solved in hours face to face. This can happen for many reasons, though most have their roots in poor writing skills.

Coupled with the impersonal nature of text, as opposed to spoken messages, this can rapidly lead to a flippant user annoying a serious user and blocking effective communication.

This shows the hidden costs of e-mail. Executives can waste their time just as easily as they can save it unless they are trained to use e-mail properly - and time wasting brings missed opportunities because problems remain unsolved.

Furthermore, because messages are easy to generate, e-mail often gets used for personal messages. Every message takes time to generate and time to read, and it is easy to envisage staff spending much of their time reading or writing e-mail messages.

And read them they have to. Unlike paper messages which can be scanned almost instantly you can only read email a screen-full at a time. Recipients have to read to the end to make sure they haven't missed anything. What is .. .worse, an e-mail message is headed by a string of unimportant information, such as lists of other message recipients. The user has to wade through screenfuls of names before they know whether or not they need to read it

It does not take too much wit to work out that using e-mail can soon push operating costs way beyond original projections when staff costs are added to computer time costs, telephone line charges, and the cost of the system.

But the most serious problem with e-mail is the many communication standards which exist. Although there are some international standards, most manufacturers of communications kit and computers are barely on nodding terms with them, and still try to push their own, proprietary systems.

This makes it difficult, and often impossible, to get different makes of computer to communicate effectively. So, any company wanting to establish an e-mail system is obliged to limit their choice of system and applications programs to those which work together.

The latter element of applications programs is increasingly important because, although e-mail is text-based, it will soon be able to use graphics, video images, sound and complex program data. But most applications used to generate such forms of information have different and usually mutually exclusive formats. Send a complex message of this type, generated on one computer, to a recipient using a different computer, and the chances are that nothing but garbage will appear.

It is true the appreciation of the common use of standards to overcome these problems already exists amongst manufacturers, but its practical realisation by them is still some way off.