Intel's Got (Too Much) Mail

Intel averages 3 million email messages per day. That's enough to choke even the fastest-moving company. Here's a short course on how the Silicon Valley giant gets the most out of those messages.

Is your life a mess? Nathan Zeldes wants to help. Listen to him in action, and you'll hear the language of a crisis-intervention counselor. Why are we doing this to one another? What is the underlying reason for our behavior? When his program of change works, Zeldes explains, "we are breaking the barrier of fear and mistrust that constrains people from changing the status quo."

Zeldes's clients aren't addicts or road-ragers, however -- they just can't manage their email. And Zeldes wants to liberate them from the mountain of messages that threatens to overwhelm them each day. Better than anyone else, he knows that email's promise of instant global communication has its dark side: By the time you look up from your inbox, half the day is gone.

At Intel, where Zeldes is the computing productivity manager, based in Israel, this is ominous stuff. Employees of the semiconductor giant collectively average 3 million emails a day, Zeldes reports, with some people racking up as many as 300 messages in one 24-hour period. No wonder that each Intel employee spends an average of two-and-a-half hours a day wrangling their messages. "We're so wrapped up in sending email to each other, we don't have time to be dealing with the outside," Zeldes says.

Five years ago, Zeldes decided to do something about it. Using Intel's Israel division as a guinea pig for his email experiment, he developed a training program to help employees take back their inboxes. His initial course centered on team discussions about how people work together and how to improve the efficiency and communication between the individuals on those teams. It also offered simple tips about how to use email more efficiently. Some pointers were no-brainers that merely bore repeating, while others generated genuine "eureka" moments for beleaguered Intel workers.

It was a quiet endeavor at first, but when news of the experiment started leaking out of Israel (via email, of course), Intel workers worldwide demanded to be included in the program. So two years ago, Zeldes was asked to develop an expanded version for rollout across Intel's other offices in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Courses in Asia and in the United States soon followed.

The course is a three-part affair. First, an office's senior management attends a presentation to learn about the productivity drivers and the behavioral expectations of email. Next comes a discussion with the management team about group responsibility. "I think the underlying cause of too much email is mistrust," Zeldes says. "As in, 'I insist on subscribing to endless distribution lists because I don't trust that my team tells me what I need to know.'" The last segment is a Web-based tutorial introducing employees to little-known time-saving tips on their email program, such as how to set up filters that automatically sift messages into project-specific folders. Management teams that have completed the course are expected to duplicate its segments with their own teams, and so on down the chain of command -- what Intel calls the "waterfall effect."

It seems to be working. According to user feedback, Intel's Africa, Europe, and Middle East offices achieved a 70% participation rate in the program, with 80% of participants saying that the tips and training have been effective. And 63% say that they see a change in the quality of email received from others.

"You have to take ownership of your email and its use," Zeldes says. "People somehow feel that the junk mail coming to them is an act of God. They just accept it and figure, 'What can I do about it?' But I say, if someone came into your office every day and punched you in the nose, you would do something about it."

Contact Nathan Zeldes by email -- but keep it short (nzeldes@fab8.intel.com).

Sidebar: The 10 Commandments of Email According to Intel

  1. Don't use your inbox as a catchall folder for everything you need to work on. Read items once, and answer them immediately if necessary, delete them if possible, or move them to project-specific folders.
  2. Set up a "Five Weeks Folder" that deletes its content automatically after five weeks. Use it as a repository for messages you're unsure about, such as that email you want to delete, but you're not sure if the guy's going to call you tomorrow and ask about it.
  3. Assist colleagues' inbox-filtering efforts by agreeing on acronyms to use in subject lines that quickly identify action items and other important messages. Sample acronyms: < AR> , Action Required; < MSR> , Monthly Status Report.
  4. Send group mail only when it is useful to all recipients. Use "reply-to-all" and "CC:" buttons sparingly.
  5. Ask to be removed from distribution lists that you don't need to be on.
  6. To cut down on pileup, use the "out-of-office" feature of your email, in addition to your voice mail, to notify people when you are traveling.
  7. When possible, send a message that is only a subject line, so recipients don't have to open the email to read a single line. End the subject line with < EOM> , the acronym for End of Message.
  8. Graphics and attachments are fun, but they slow down your ability to download messages when you're on the road. Use them sparingly.
  9. If you're sending an attachment larger than 5 MB to a large group of recipients, consider putting it on the company's Web site or intranet instead.
  10. Be specific. If you send a 20-page attachment, tell the recipient that the important information is on pages 2 and 17.

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