|We all use email as a primary means of business communication. And we all know we do it to excess. The average manager receives 200 emails per day and spends 13 hours per week on email. Of those 200 less than an estimated 10% are relevant and useful.
No, this is not another email rant. The more interesting question is why email as a technology has survived for decades when it is so inefficient. Well, maybe we are finally seeing signs that there are some viable alternatives.
Email was always a general messaging system. But for some businesses it is a workflow application. We use email to send messages about particular transactions in any given process. We use it to hand things off to one another when we have done our bit. It’s how we let someone else know to do the next step in the process.
The problem arises when we use it as both a messaging system and a workflow tool. That’s how we manage to bury the 10% of important messages in the other 90%.
Enter Trello, Asana and Podio
In the last few years a number of new applications have appeared to tackle this issue. Among them are Trello, Asana and Podio. This is not an exhaustive list but based on number of users, they are the leaders in this space.
Now, there are plenty of differences between them.
These applications are getting better and better. I have been watching them develop for some time. I want to know if they can help my clients – and visitors to this blog. Are they ready for prime time? Should you be using them?
The short answer is that if you are running your processes on email (and that would be a lot of us), you should be taking a look at how these alternatives might enable you to improve productivity by:
• Extracting tasks from email
Trello et al. offer ways to manage tasks within the application. That’s not to say they can’t work with email. They do. But email serves more for reminders or notification. And they all allow you to turn it on or off.
This keeps important transactions out of the blizzard and trivia of email. So instead, the record of communication is all in one place. If someone joins a task after a lot of work has already taken place, all the correspondence is available if needed. They don’t have to go searching through emails to literally pick up the thread.
It is not just the notes. You can attach documents and files of any kind. So that cuts down on the 17 different versions of the same Excel file. Not to mention hunting it down on the shared drive.
One of the most uncomfortable feelings as a manager is to be responsible for the output from many people. Yet not have a clue what they are actually doing at any given time. If you ever attend the kind of meeting that begins “Where are we with…” then you will know what I mean.
All these applications offer a visual picture of the tasks in hand and who is doing them. It’s a sort of list of everyone’s in-box. So, now a manager can see where the bottlenecks are. Who has not got much on their plate, who has too much? A manager with this view of the tasks in their department can balance workloads and hold people accountable for their output.
When we manage tasks through email we pass them from out-box to in-box where they sit in a queue. Unless told otherwise, team members often decide the order they will perform tasks in a queue. In effect, they are setting the priorities to suit themselves.
Trello, Asana and Podio, however, all give a manager visibility of the tasks for the team. This has a special benefit when setting priorities. It is easy to re-order tasks by dragging and dropping. Hey Presto! The priority has changed. Now a manager has a better way to respond to ever changing goalposts.
A frequent complaint I hear from team members when I visit clients is “I don’t always know what should I be doing”. In fact, studies have shown that people like to know how their work helps their company to achieve their goals. Giving the same visibility to the user as the manager helps the user see how their work fits into the team’s work.
Capturing and documenting processes
Let’s say you have just completed a real life instance of a process. For example, say you have hired a finance person, Mary. In theory it should be possible to trace the steps in Mary’s hiring process from email records.
In practice it is very hard to do so. We have to track down the sequence of events through different peoples’ email threads. We created documents and other data as the process unfolded. But there is no direct way to connect them to the process at the right stage.
So, if you tried to capture the process and document it, it’s nearly impossible.
In a collaborative application there is a single place where we put the complete record of the process. That includes the correspondence, documentation, comments and a time line. Even better, it is in chronological order. You stand a much better chance of unpicking it to discover what the process was.
Why bother to do that? Because it makes capturing a process and documenting it for future use, so much easier to do.
OK, email is not going away. But that does not mean we have to suffer unnecessarily. These new applications offer us the chance to extract task management from the tyranny of email. If we do that we get other benefits like the chance to manage multiple processes and prioritize them. It’s definitely worth a look.
In future posts I’ll be helping you to do that by looking at the relative merits of the different applications. I will kick the tires and assess the strengths and weaknesses. I’ll be asking if they are ready for prime time and under what conditions. Stay tuned. Or better yet, sign up for a forthcoming white paper on hand-offs.