Wednesday, August 29, 2012

“Exploring Alternatives to Emails” Series: Email Deficiencies

In my recent feature in MacWorld Magazine, Stop Using Emails for Everything, I barely scratched the surface of the real drawbacks we face at LAC Group by using email as a primary tool for internal communications. Once you peel back the clutter of unsolicited emails, there is a plethora of information coming into our business through this medium, most of which is disbursed to individuals. While many of the hundreds of emails which enter the mailboxes of our 300 or so employees, are from clients, potential clients and vendors, the vast majority are internal messages which would be useful to LAC Group as a business entity, a whole. It's the new model of what I call "working publicly."

I recently ran across this quote (although I don't know who said it):

"… email is a knowledge cul-de-sac – a dead end for valuable ideas – a graveyard of potential. Email is where corporate IQ kicks back and has a brewski. Email also contributes to corporate amnesia; forgetfulness that costs businesses millions – perhaps billions in repeated mistakes every year.

Email is also wasteful; threads grow with unending off-topic discussions and CC lists expand, eroding productivity in all corners of the enterprise. Indeed, email is a problem but imagine trying to do business without it. 

Even with the massive heat-loss from this antiquated and weak communications model, two things are clear; (i) no one has come up with a better approach that has challenged or displaced email, and (ii) it works pretty well in spite of its shortcomings."
While we don't have a great answer for external communications, the relatively new emergence of private communication platforms, such as Yammer, are taking on internal email communications.

Employees work in silos; this may be further exasperated for those who work for companies like LAC Group who have their clients spread across various client work-sites. This means all mail sent and received from those employees remains in a silo too (not to mention the multiplication factor that happens on attachments, security and lack of staff interaction). 

Today’s email technology, while effective for external communications, does not support internal collaborations and efforts within a master account, necessary for the preservation of data and knowledge. Organizing and sharing the influx of data sent to individual employees  remains a manual function that must be handled by policy and procedure, rather than technology. Although individual email boxes are archived for reference, or emergency, essentially all the value is lost unless data is mined from their received and sent emails.

Addition email deficiencies include:

  • Emails contradictory to your company branding - Every company has at least one example of an email sent to a client that should never have been sent out, improperly branding/representing your business in a different, or unfavorable light. 
  • Emails received, and responded to, internally by more than one party - Providers, vendors and partners often send emails to numerous employees, who in turn, all take time to respond. Not only can the company message be lost, represented improperly, or worse, but, let’s face it, this methodology wastes time and productivity throughout the entire organization.
  • Emails that unnecessarily consume excess space on your servers -  When a large attachment is included in an email distributed to numerous employees, and they all save and/or respond, this creates an exponential growth of that data, (1 MB PDF file x 20 responses = consumption of 20 MB).
  • Blind CCs create passive-aggressive stigma in the workplace While the use of BCC can provide some capability for “working publicly” - the use of this feature does little for internal morale and is still simply a work-around approach.  

As an information & knowledge management executive, I appreciate the magnitude of change that occurred in our business communications with the advent of email. In fact, I still view email as not only necessary but the most revolutionary tool that we've come up with for communicating with clients. Yet, as COO of LAC Group, I would be remiss if I didn’t look long and hard for solutions to the current deficiencies, gaps and dilemmas we experience each day with email, costing us in valuable time and money.

Join me next week as I explore some of the new technology and tooling available to us, in order to find better faster ways for our team to work, to preserve employee contributions even after they have left the company, and most importantly to protect our knowledge base.   

 “In today’s environment, hoarding knowledge ultimately erodes your power. If you know something very important, the way to get power is by actually sharing it.”  – Joseph Badaracco

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

“Exploring Alternatives to Emails” Series - Unsolicited Emails

Unsolicited Emails
 “Email fatigue” occurs when a user ignores a large number of email messages after falling behind in reading and answering them.” – Lawrence Lessig, Harvard University.

While the advent of email has forever changed our business models and methodologies for communication and marketing, the sheer volumes of unsolicited emails have given most of us cause to search for alternatives. In this segment, I will address the different types of unsolicited emails we are inundated with on a continuous basis, the how and why, and more importantly actions you can take to reduce each.  

“Ham” versus “Spam”
Spam, “junk mail”, or unsolicited bulk email (UBE) accounts for 78% of all electronic messages – that’s 229 billion spam messages sent out daily!  These “messages” are not only ubiquitous and unavoidable, but often even dangerous to the health of our computer / devices. These unsolicited bulk “messages” can and often do include links or attachments connecting us to phishing software and malware. Because spammers are able to collect our data from sites we visit, create viruses to harvest our contact lists often undetected, and more, it is virtually impossible to eliminate all spam. Today, the best methodology for defending yourself against spam is to empty the spam folder in your mailbox without opening or responding to the sender. Of course, that's if what is in your spam folder was properly categorized.

Phishing is the attempt to “bait” you in order to obtain personal information from your virtual mailbox, computer and even wallet, most commonly: usernames, passwords, credit card and bank information. Most phishing occurs when we respond to spam “bait” with malicious links or attachments, taking us to a fictional website that prompts for personal information. As a rule of thumb, you should drive to your bank’s website. Phishing has been one of the many online sharks to avoid since 1995; banks and vendors will not send emails soliciting your personal information, as a result.  It is also important to use Tools – Delete Browsing – Delete Phishing Filter Data on a regular basis to ensure no doors have been left open in your mailbox.

Malware, short for malicious software, covers the gamut for codes, scripts, active content and other intrusive and hostile software created by hackers for the purpose of disrupting your computer function or hard drive, to gain access to your computer without your consent, and to obtain your personal information. Malware is most commonly known in the form of: viruses, worms, spyware and adware. The best defense to block these attacks remains anti-virus and anti-malware software, and firewalls. When in doubt, drag and drop to the spam folder, without opening, and empty the folder immediately. Regular scans and diagnostics of your computer are also affective for identifying, quarantining, and eliminating undetected malware and back doors.

Unsolicited Marketing Emails - “Subscriptions”
Just about every business has attempted to use their contact lists for mass marketing via electronic mail, much like snail mail in the 80s and prior. Often these emails account for a large chunk of the messages we consider an annoyance. While dealing with these individually requires times, it usually leads to a resolution. Valid commercial marketers are required to provide you with an unsubscribe button, removing your email address and eliminating future incoming mail. Valid businesses also provide unsubscribe buttons on their websites.

Taking the time to read and respond to the privacy policies of every online retailer, ISP, etc. is a task which is often "clicked through" and ignored. Most collect, distribute and use your address and information, preferences, etc. for advertising purposes. They often have a marketing preferences screen where you can uncheck boxes to remove your email address from their marketing and promotional lists, and their “partner” lists. All businesses are required to provide you with a more definitive option to stop unsolicited marketers, most often referred to as a Customer Proprietary Network Information or CPNI Restriction Request.

“At the bottom, the elimination of spyware and the preservation of privacy for the consumer are critical goals if the Internet is to remain safe and reliable and credible.”  – Cliff Stearns

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

“Exploring Alternatives to Emails” Series - A Brief History

Technology & Tooling
“Exploring Alternatives to Emails” Series

Internet protocols

Application layer
DHCP · DHCPv6 · DoIP · DNS · FTP · HTTP · IMAP · IRC · LDAP · MGCP · NNTP · NTP · POP · RPC · RTP · RTSP · SIP · SMTP · SNMP · SOCKS · SSH · Telnet · TLS/SSL · XMPP · (more) 
Transport layer
TCP · UDP · DCCP · SCTP · RSVP · (more) 
Internet layer
IP ( IPv4 · IPv6 ) · ICMP · ICMPv6 · RIP · OSPF · BGP · ECN · IGMP · IPsec · (more) 
Link layer
ARP/InARP · NDP · Tunnels ( L2TP ) · PPP · Media access control ( Ethernet · DSL · ISDN · FDDI ) · (more)

A Brief History of Electronic Mail (email):

The advent of electronic mail (email) was a critical component for user to user digital communication with the introduction of the global Internet; connecting 2.2 billion users, or 1/3 of the world’s population, today. The first electronic mail system dates back to the 1970s, as part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the world’s first packet switching network design.    

From circuit switching to packet switching
Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, all communications, both voice and data were handled through circuit switching. Circuit switching is best explained by referencing our early telephone system, where communications were handled by allocating and routing each individual message through a series of designated circuits and connected stations (telephones or computers) stretching between point A and point B; the downside was “designated”. Packet switching revolutionized our communications, allowing both voice and data to be grouped into datagrams, or data packets within a computer network system, transmitting our communications simultaneously from network to network, using a single communications link.

From FTP to SMTP (protocols)
In addition to our migration from circuit switching to packet switching, protocols also improved. The older File Transfer Protocol (FTP) was replaced by the new standard Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) in the early 1980s. The SMTP not only sped up communications, but included more advanced delivery parameters, changing email communications from simple text messages to the look, feel and function of our 3-deminsional snail mail from a virtual post box. All email messages we sent or received had a standard format, including an envelope with identifying data, a header (addressee and subject) and body text. Today, and three decades later, virtually all emails still use the SMTP transfer protocol worldwide.

From text-only to MIME
Early email messages were text-only, traditionally small 7-bit ASCII files of data, much like the text messaging capabilities on our wireless phones. Advanced Internet standards were introduced for email formats expanding their capabilities from text-only messages to Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME). This new standard not only dramatically changed the content format of our emails, but allowed us the capability for attachments, and continues to serve in an important role in our communication protocols over the global Internet. Virtually all digital communications today are transmitted in MIME format, whether an actual email message or something else, keeping our communications across the globe synchronized in a format we can all agree on, access, follow and understand.   

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Technology & Tooling “Exploring Alternatives to Email” Series

“I get mail; therefore I am.”  Scott Adams (1957)

2010 Internet in Numbers

Email accounts worldwide – 2.9 billion
Emails sent on over the Internet – 107 trillion
Email messages sent per day – 294 billion

Electronic mail opened the door for more effective and timely business communications, but as with any tool, there have been many frustrations and hurdles to manage over the past several decades. Improper use of email for mass marketing, and spam, including: backscatter, viruses, and worms are some of the most notable problems that create unmanageable volumes of unsolicited emails, and excessive time spent to simply clean out and maintain a viable communications tool.  My first email account was at Spalding (the sporting goods manufacturer) in 1990, as an intern...they were on the bleeding edge of technology (at the time).

I was featured in a great article written by Joel Mathis in the June 2012 issue of MacWorld Magazine, “Stop Using Emails forEverything”, as at the time I was receiving upwards of 500 emails each day that must be read, deleted, responded to, filed, etc...consuming large chunks of time during my day, and I am far from alone in my inundation.   It should be noted that roughly 1/2 to 2/3 of the email was internal mail.  As COO of LAC-Group, I am tasked with the evaluation of new technology and tooling, achieving greater efficiencies, better communications and operations, internally with our large team of employees who work in one of our global offices or client locations all over the world. Our 300+ employees work in almost 65 different locations, and many have not met each other.

Join me over the next several weeks in this “Exploring Alternatives to Email” Series as I uncover and explore the history of electronic mail, how it works behind the scenes, the pros and cons of this massive worldwide communications tool, viable methodology for reducing excessive backscatter and high volumes, and the new technology and tooling available for more effective business communications in the future, perhaps replacing email altogether. As I continue in the series I'll also provide a view into our recent migration away from (internal) email - how we were successful, what we use and why.

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