Could Open Email Work for You?

Recently I had a case of walking pneumonia that quickly turned into flat-on-my-back pneumonia. The only good thing that came out of it was that I spent a few days away from email. When I returned, there were the better part of 1,000 missives waiting for me (and that’s not counting what the spam filter held), but it was reassuring and instructive to realize that the world didn’t end just because I wasn’t an email hawk for a few days.

This got me thinking how people use and manage email nowadays. As I scrolled through the many messages, it was easy to see that plenty of people use email for the most ephemeral, not-worth-saving reasons: dozens and dozens of notes had single sentences or fragments such as “Done,” “OK,” Sure,” and “Will do,” sitting atop a long exchange. In some ways, it was faster reading all that email in one long, sub-Marissa Mayer session. I could isolate 15-piece email chains, delete or file the first 14, and focus on the most recent part. You can’t do that in real time (I try; I employ GTD for email, but I’m not religious about it).

The most interesting way of managing email that I’ve read about lately is the open email regime employed by JP Rangaswami, CIO of BT Global Services. Stowe Boyd reports:

“JP has set up a stringent approach to filtering his email. He throws all email where he is CC’d directly into the trash. Basically, he only reads email directed to him, alone. Of course, for this to have any influence on people’s behavior, he has to loudly and regularly let others know that he is doing this. More interestingly, he has opened access to his email to his staff. By treating his email as an open forum, he has found that his associates are more involved in his interactions with others. He has found that they can use this — particularly his sent mail — is a great learning opportunity.”

So much of working online involves deciding what’s public and what’s private. Rangaswami has turned this around, at least for his work (I assume he still has a private email account he doesn’t share). As fellow Radarite Brady Forrest noted when we discussed this recently, “Although this is analogous to making email like forums and wikis, the key difference is that you are using email as the entry point. It’s not a separate wiki/forum site.” And, since it’s a tool that everyone uses already, it’s more likely that the non-alphageeks you work with might be more likely to use it. What do you think: Could open email break down some walls in your organization?