Inc.'s former technology editor explains why it may be time to dump your phone and fax, and turn to on-line messaging.
It may be time to dump your phone, fax, and paper mail. Here's why on-line messaging has everything else beat
The time has come,' the Walrus said, 'To talk of many things.' " But please don't phone me, fax me, or tax the already overburdened postal service.
We are drowning, the common complaint goes, in an information flood. Messages and documents pour into and out of our offices. In the deluge, one type of message -- electronic mail -- keeps you afloat. So superior is E-mail in transmitting information that it may be time to begin discouraging paper mail, faxes, and even phone calls.
E-mail's advantages aren't only speed, efficiency, and 24-hour-a-day accessibility -- though those benefits are certainly welcome. What really sets E-mail apart is threading: the process of integrating messages, documents, and computer files, and establishing links -- or threads -- among them. Software enables you to place a single document in multiple threads ("Handley account," "special orders," and "Chicago region," for example). The threads themselves are established using key words that appear in the message or document, or that are attached by the user to ensure correct retrieval. Lotus Notes and other groupware products already provide some threading capabilities; and several software companies, including Saros Corp., in Bellevue, Wash., and Oracle Corp., in Redwood Shores, Calif., sell database software that includes some as well.
Threading can organize huge amounts of information in a single computer system. When done well, it gives everyone in a business a clear picture not only of his or her own work but also of how that work affects the work of others so that one person can quickly pick up where another has left off. It lets people know how various projects relate to one another. And it allows managers to look at the message and document flow throughout a business to see where time and decision bottlenecks lie and to find out which projects support -- or hinder -- the company's progress.
E-mail's less exotic benefits range from flexibility to cost savings. Messages received via E-mail can be revised and distributed easily and quickly because the contents arrive "computer ready." Storing and retrieving E-mail are much simpler than filing and finding paper mail, and E-mail messages have it all over voice-mail messages, which are so difficult to store and use that very few people bother to do so.
E-mail is also far cheaper than a letter or a fax. A 10-page report typically costs 25¢ to send and receive electronically; it costs 55¢ to send a letter by mail and $1.25 to send a fax. Sending E-mail is also much faster than faxing: a 50-page report takes about 2 minutes to send via E-mail; the same report takes 15 minutes by fax.
To make the most of E-mail, you should start now to transfer your routine correspondence from fax, phone, and letter to E-mail -- not just internally, but externally too. To do so, you first have to establish an E-mail identity for your company. The best choice is a corporate Internet address -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- with your company's name ("acme") following the @ sign ("@acme.com").
Once you're secure in your on-line identity, institute the following practices to encourage the use of E-mail both inside and outside the office: Print your E-mail address on your letterhead and business cards. Suggest in your voice-mail answering message that people send you E-mail next time around. ("The best way to leave a message for me is to write via E-mail to email@example.com.") Ask the companies you routinely do business with to install and use E-mail. Go as far as sending them software for an Internet service provider, such as America Online or CompuServe.
Of course, there are times when E-mail isn't the best form of communication to use. Telephone conversations, for example, are often more comprehensive and convenient. If you have a retail business, most of your customers will continue to call rather than send E-mail. Faxes will remain easier and more convenient than E-mail for sending drawings and formatted text until the computer industry settles on standards for exchanging complete documents. Paper mail and over- night mail will be transporting color brochures and manufacturers' samples for many years to come.
In the long run, though, E-mail will be the key tool for managing the enormous volume of information that we all have to cope with. Small businesses would do well to use it to the max.
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Cary Lu (firstname.lastname@example.org) was formerly technology editor of Inc.