I remember when email first arrived in the workplace. For years we had been sending memos (and actual carbon copies) in brown inter-office envelopes; then in 1994 all of a sudden everyone in my global company (Intel) could communicate by email at the click of a mouse. Wow! You could write a coworker on the other side of the planet and a reply would be waiting for you the next morning. What a productivity boost! What a great use of technology! A true techie’s heaven!

Looking back, it is a marvel just how fast this heaven had turned into hell. In less than a year people were seeing their inbox as a major enemy. Today, 24 years later, they still do.  Email’s advantages – convenience, instant 24×7 access to unlimited distributions, and zero cost – are what allow it to bury us in an uncontrolled flood. The outcomes have been researched in depth: they include major time waste (about one day a week); a measurable reduction in cognitive performance (impacting intelligent thought, creativity, decision quality, and error rates); the destruction of key organizational processes (notably effective meetings); and of course damage to work/life balance, family interactions and overall quality of life. The arrival of ever-present, always-connected handheld devices has only made all this worse. Of course if we still had human secretaries they would be a great help screening their boss’s mail, as they always had; but we’ve eliminated most of these assistants in the early euphoria around office automation (who needs an admin, they said, when you can set your own meeting in Outlook?)…

At the time I was a manager in Intel’s IT group, and I decided to study the causes and seek solutions to this new problem. I soon realized that the problem’s roots go deep into the organization’s culture, where mistrust, over-competitiveness and fear cause people to over-communicate in order to be noticed, or covered, or avoid the fear of missing out. I also found that the overload was impacting countless organizations around the world, and that like me they were grappling with a lack of commercial solutions. We all had to develop our own solutions in-house, and our exchanges of knowledge and tools eventually led me to start the Information Overload Research Group, giving us a framework for cross-company cooperation.

In those early days the first solutions we went for had to do with behavior change – getting organizations to define and internalize communication norms and expectations, educating senders in the etiquette and writing skills that would make email effective, and training recipients in how to use their email client more efficiently.

Software solutions aiming to automate email handling came next, some homegrown and some from startups and email vendors. As their numbers grew so did their variety; you can download a compilation I wrote that lists over 160 different solutions. From the recipient’s perspective the best tools of that generation could scan the inbox and classify the messages by importance, based on the user’s preferences and – increasingly – past behavior. This involved a measure of Machine Learning combined with user input.

More recently, as computers continue their breakneck rush towards the technological singularity, we see Artificial Intelligence being applied to the email problem. This is amusing to me because we are in fact making the computer take on the role of the human admin or TA that we’ve eliminated in the nineties. Would a computer intelligent enough to shield the boss from the curse of email  pass the Turing Test?…

So, today the promising solutions to information overload involve AI. This includes massive applications like checking millions of research papers to find the cure to a patient’s symptoms (requiring the might of IBM Watson), and it includes personal tools that fit on your smartphone, like Knowmail, the AI-based inbox assistant. Knowmail checks the hundreds of messages in your inbox and tells you which few you need to read right now, based on your current work context; how long dealing with these mails will take you; and what you should do about them. It understands your work, your needs and your communications and helps you cope in the best way. These capabilities integrate seamlessly with Outlook and Cortana; the advantages have not been lost on Microsoft, who have even decided to co-sell Knowmail to benefit users of Outlook 365. As they put it:

“Knowmail’s innovative solution provides a valuable, private, and secured solution to enterprise professionals experiencing the pain of email overload who wish for a more productive future with less stress. Knowmail’s commitment to the Microsoft cloud platform integrates smoothly with Microsoft productivity story, allowing our customers to be more productive. We are excited by this partnership”  –  Microsoft Exec- Idit Gazit Berger, ISV Lead MEA at Microsoft

This level of personalized, surgical precision in message processing goes beyond any dreams we had back when the problem hit us in the face in the mid-nineties; and there is a poetic justice to it, since the same computer that has unleashed email overload on us all is at last reaching the level of intelligence required to extract us from it!

Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior. He is also the president of the Information Overload Research Group (IORG) and both a judge and mentor at MassChallenge.