do-not-reply@: the inefficiencies of email use demonstrated by graduates

Graduates, and their colleagues, born after 1970 are unlikely to have worked in a context in which email was not a primary communication tool. Its inefficiency is manifest but often overlooked.

I went from my undergraduate degree in 1988 into a role as a Logistics Manager for Vichy L’Oreal. The job involved using a stand-alone PC, a telephone to the factory in France, and a weekly Telex to Paris. I was appointed on the basis that I spoke French. I couldn’t write French for caramel au beurre (toffee), but I could speak it. No one asked me at my interview whether I had any computer skills or indeed whether I was numerate. I didn’t have email.

Today employers make similar assumptions about digital competence. I have just finished a consultancy project looking at embedding real-world practices and assessment in a business degree. The external reviews had been good, but the feedback from the destination surveys with employers less so. Their recent recruits could not communicate appropriately using email.

This challenge was described by Cal Newport in his Harvard Business Report piece “A Modest Proposal.”(2016). Outlining IBM’s early experience of corporate email in the 1980s, he explains that while the first few days showed positive signs of increased productivity but quickly employees simply adopting the system for their routine offline communication, and notably communicated ‘vastly more’ than they had before. “Thus — in a mere week or so — was gained and blown the potential productivity gain of email,” Newport cites an IBM manager. Email is now a source of inefficiency. Email use is so ubiquitous it becomes difficult to imagine running an organisation without it.

The review of this particular business degree demonstrated much like that was positive. Lots of collaborative project type activities and group assessments. Business simulations using software, embedded in the institutional learning management system, form the basis of the second year and a ‘new’ business project provided the foundation for the third year. In many ways it is a progressive design, sharing characteristics of many medical school’s approaches to ‘problem based learning’. So, why weren’t the employers recruiting from this degree happy?

It turns out that the employers biggest complaint was the inability of graduates to use email effectively. Their complaints mirror closely many of my own with the way colleagues routinely use email, so let’s unpack them.

Saying enough, but not too much. Writing a handwritten email requires thought before you write and a conscious decision whether to ‘go over the page’. It leads to shorter, more direct forms of asking questions or answering them. Students who do not use email (preferring messaging apps) are not practiced at measuring their message.

Treating email like chat. Students who are invested in the immediacy of communication, and the transient nature of the message, are prone to not invest sufficient thought in the enduring nature of business communication. Microsoft Teams, Yammer, and other messaging apps simply reinforce this behaviour. Communications may be immediate, but it’s it also ‘cheap’.

Inappropriate use of reply-all. Senior managers expressed some frustration with receiving emails with ‘thanks’ as the body of the email, sent to everyone, sometimes dozens of people, simply because the person hit ‘reply-all’. The question one might ask is if you received a paper memo from the same person, with the same information, would you go to the trouble of writing a memo back that says ‘thanks’?

Lazy addressing of email. Dragging out an old email in order to identify a sender and then hitting reply fails on two counts. Firstly, it may be that without changing the subject heading, the email may be filed with a conversation thread that is otherwise closed. It may get lost, and prove difficult to retrieve if the subject is different from that of the header. Secondly, the dreaded ‘reply-all’ means that one risks sending an appropriate message to people you did not mean to contact. Human Resource departments often have stories of ‘misunderstandings’ borne merely as the result of inappropriately sending email to the ‘wrong’ people.

Some larger commercial organisations are templating emails, turning them more into ‘digital memos’, using mailing aliases, using more BCC, and originating emails from ‘do-not-reply@‘ addresses. I came across one company that has banned all internal email, using Teams for anything internal, and using email for external communications. There are moves for organisations to reimpose a degree of structure around workflow and issuing mandates (as French legislation does) protecting the right for employees to ‘un-plug’. Organisations are embracing the limitations imposed through tools like Slack, imposing different internal and external channels. Others are simply exploring internal training courses on how to write emails efficiently. Some have even chosen to embrace the paper memo to replace some internal communication. Somewhere I am sure someone is ‘reinventing’ Lotus Notes as I write.

There is a growing problem, not just for the younger generations now graduating who have no experience of email efficiency, but for businesses worldwide. My advice to the leadership of the degree that I was consulting on was to make the second and third year projects less ‘clinical’, more chaotic in terms of the technology platforms that were available to students. Students need to learn to communicate using email in its wild and untamed form. That would require students to be educated as to write digital memos.Then any restricted workflow they may encounter will be a bonus.

I had actually used a PC before I joined Vichy in 1988, but certainly not the way the role required of me. Fortunately I seemed to have the ‘knack’. As well as the weekly telex and making daily phonecalls, I wrote a handful of internal memos (on paper) each week. I was managing a monthly budget of millions of pounds worth of stock flows with just that level of communication. I can imagine there are at least three people doing the same job now, engaged in a sisyphean effort just to manage the email traffic.

Newport, Cal. “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.” Harvard Business Review, February 18, 2016.

Image by Sara Kurfeß @stereo.prototype at


University Learning and Teaching Strategies Post-Covid

One characteristic of a four to five year Learning and Teaching Strategy (LTS) is that it should require a complete re-write when it comes up for renewal. Given the inevitable pace of change, any remotely ambitious strategy is likely to have several ‘not achieved’ elements when it comes up for review. If you can sign-off on a five-year strategy as ‘complete’, you weren’t trying hard enough.

Someone has recently asked me to contribute to a 2021-2025 Learning and Teaching Strategy (LTS) for a University. I have drafted and contributed to many such documents over the last 25 years, so it’s always interesting to have a glimpse into other institutions. I realized one defining characteristic of the leadership of universities today is whether they have looked at their Learning and Teaching Strategy issued before January 2020 and have thought, “Emmm, maybe we need a rethink.”

Some leadership has a long-term mindset. They have recognised the enormous effort, commitment and dedication of the majority of their faculty to adjust their practices to Emergency Remote Teaching and are supporting those same faculty to retain and enhance their best practice into the future. Others have solely focussed on their balance-sheets, student-generated income, estate costs and spend time appealing for government support. The former are concerned with investing in their future state, the later worrying about this year’s numbers.

This particular LTS is ambitious; for them. The ability for faculty to continue to support their learners regardless of whether they work remotely, across time zones, from anywhere in the world. A move away entirely from end-of-course summative assessments and exams, towards student-paced portfolio assessment regardless of the discipline. Developing practical learning experiences that can be undertaken at home, or at other institutions and work-places. There are some major structural changes that will be needed to enable these learning practices to take root. The underlying philosophy is that the contemporary University student no longer has the luxury of dedicating their entire being to live and study at University for three years. They need flexibility.

Elements within this particular 2021-2025 Learning and Teaching Strategy will not be achieved. Sometimes this is because ambitions require changes to the digital ecosystem beyond institutional control, or they are subject to the vagaries of the shifting political landscape. Given the intransigence that sometimes appears embedded in the sector, some ambitions may just require too much of people. Nonetheless, it has been satisfying to see leadership willing to embark on a strategy, knowing the best that can be hoped for is ‘partially achieved’. Which from my perspective will be an unmitigated success.

Dr Simon Paul Atkinson (PFHEA)
Learning Strategist //

Photo by Verschoren Maurits from Pexels

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