Digital Mass Graves of Knowledge

Almost half a cen­tu­ry has passed since Ray Tom­lin­son sent the first e‑mail in 1971. A tech­nol­o­gy for a few nerds has grad­u­al­ly become a mass phe­nom­e­non at the lat­est since the 1990s. Today, the aver­age employ­ee receives or sends more than 100 e‑mails per day(!). So it’s no won­der that many see e‑mail as a bur­den and even large cor­po­ra­tions like Atos have gone so far as to com­plete­ly ban inter­nal e‑mails and there­by get­ting more done. There is much to be said for such an approach: con­stant dis­trac­tion through e‑mails, an increas­ing­ly unfavourable sig­nal-to-noise ratio of the infor­ma­tion trans­mit­ted, but also the often neglect­ed area of knowl­edge man­age­ment. And so the mail­box­es become dig­i­tal mass graves of knowledge.

E‑mail is where knowl­edge goes to die.
Bill French

You all know what it’s like. You will find an inter­est­ing link and then quick­ly for­ward it to your col­leagues by e‑mail. Not to every­one, of course, but to a few select­ed ones. Maybe there will be a lit­tle dis­cus­sion about it and then every­one will file the emails some­where or delete them. And again a piece of knowl­edge is buried. The mail­box­es are dead ends of the infor­ma­tion flow. In these dig­i­tal silos ideas are dying — only occa­sion­al­ly rean­i­mat­ed by a more or less suc­cess­ful search for the inter­est­ing link from the oth­er day.

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.
George Bernard Shaw

Don’t get me wrong. Of course it is worth­while to share knowl­edge and ideas with col­leagues. That’s exact­ly the point. The prob­lem is e‑mail as a medi­um. It is sim­ple, fast and is reli­ably read. Every­body’s just got­ten used to it in the last 20 years. But it is essen­tial­ly a dig­i­tal let­ter and made for com­mu­ni­ca­tion between two peo­ple or at most for dis­cus­sion in a small group. Longer dis­cus­sions in larg­er groups quick­ly become messy and quick­ly lead to the sec­ond great plague of our time and a meet­ing is set up.

For some time now, there have been more suit­able tools in most orga­ni­za­tions. Many now have an Enter­prise Social Net­work (ESN) that would enable struc­tured dis­cus­sions in open groups. There, col­leagues could join in who you had­n’t thought of as recip­i­ents, but who pick up your idea and con­nect it to some­thing else. And per­haps at some point the deci­sive con­nec­tions will arise from which a real­ly great idea will emerge.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, most ESNs often fall far short of their poten­tial. Many employ­ees are still unac­cus­tomed or untrained to using it, but this can be eas­i­ly changed, for exam­ple, by Work­ing Out Loud. How­ev­er, cul­ture should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed. E‑mail is also a pro­tect­ed space (this is exact­ly the prob­lem) in which it is much eas­i­er to speak up. For this pur­pose, it is absolute­ly nec­es­sary to have lead­er­ship and lead­ers who demon­strate open com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the ESN. In many cas­es, how­ev­er, ESNs are also tech­ni­cal­ly more cum­ber­some than the good old e‑mail. As long as it is eas­i­er to send an email than to quick­ly share the link on the ESN for every­one, the email will always be pre­ferred and the ideas will con­tin­ue to rot in the dig­i­tal mass graves.

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