Monday, March 29, 2004



In my former company, we often joked that the job of a manager is to forward e-mails. These days, when we say we are "working", it usually means that we are reading/answering/forwarding/deleting e-mails. Having cleared our mailbox, we feel that we have accomplished an honest day's work.

Everyone has a different perception of what constitutes "work". For some, it is making phonecalls; for others, it is attending meetings. For the knowledge worker today, it is "clearing" emails.

E-mails can be used to great effect to give the appearance that you are doing a lot of work. One of the most common tricks is to cc your bosses on every work-related communication, no matter how trivial they are. And of course, never, never miss the opportunity to announce a "success story" thanking everyone in the world for it, including the OB (short for office-boy, pronounced "oh-bay" in Indonesia) who helped to bungkus nasi padang for you while you were too busy to go out for lunch.

For sure a flood of congratulatory e-mails will soon follow, praising everyone involved in a frenzy of mutual masturbation. It is the duty of every good manager to highlight successes: More people higher up the food chain are cc-ed, followed by more congratulatory messages. This goes on round after round until you start to wonder if it is ever going to end. Usually it only abates when someone in his infinite wisdom, mentions the magic word: "It's all due to TEAMWORK".

Work accomplished, everyone returns dutifully to their mailbox to await the arrival of their next e-mail. In a typical day, there will be a huge amount of e-mails that require our attention. It is very important to prioritize: those with the word "URGENT" in the subject line can be safely ignored. If it is really urgent, your handphone and not your mailbox should be beeping. Priority is always given to e-mails that contain large jpeg attachments. Usually, those e-mails need to be urgently forwarded to a special mailing list which includes people from outside the company--mindful of the age-old maxim that in giving, ye shall also be receiving.

Forget about reading Sun Tzu's Art of War or Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The busy executive doesn't have time for that. Do not under-estimate the educational value of e-mails: If one is dilligent enough to read every company e-mail announcing new products or "go-to-market" plans, one will pick up a vocabulary of corporate cliches rich enough to carry oneself impressively at the highest levels of boardroom meetings.

I really miss the e-mail culture of the corporate world.

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