The biggest bane I have in running the InTEP executive group is contacting CIOs. For many years I used a simple approach. A fax was sent to introduce myself and this was followed by a phone call to try to set up an appointment. Somewhere around 1998 this process became impractical. In particular, I found it impossible to talk to even a humble assistant, let alone the CIO. Invariably machines told me that my call was important but everyone seemed just too preoccupied to be able to answer it. I discovered that for the modest cost-saving of a receptionist many organisations in the country had succeeded in excommunicating themselves from the outside world. I also encountered a lot of resistance to my continuing use of fax. While many businesses had established departmental fax machines, the process of distributing incoming faxes was usually done in an ad-hoc way. As a result, I was told that faxes had a tendency to lie around like beached whales. Furthermore, if the recipient was not the right person to handle the contents of the fax there was a subsequent delay while it was redistributed.
For a while I thought email would solve this problem. People would be able to read the message at their leisure. They could rapidly forward it to someone else if needs be and you could include several attachments to embellish what you were trying to say. Initially, it worked a treat. Nearly everyone responded quickly. Even if it was to decline to meet, at least you knew where you stood. Today this is definitely not the case. In fact, one InTEP member pleaded with me to change from email as my method of correspondence. He said he got so many emails during the day the only time he had available to go through them was late at night at home. In this frame of mind he found he deleted virtually every email that was external to his company. It was his way of prioritising things.
As a result, a recent article in Computerworld intrigued me. This outlined plans for all local political parties to make far greater use of email in the forthcoming general election. There seemed a consensus that email can be targeted, is much cheaper and is, thus, much more effective than posting out election material. The question no one seemed to ask was whether anyone would read it? Given the fact that political parties are not known for their subtlety, the likelihood is that between now and election day Kiwi voters can expect to find their email in-trays bursting with messages praising the virtues of every politician under the sun.
How do the political parties expect the voter will handle this? If anyone is like me they will open their email at the start of the day, read the subject matter for all new correspondence and delete anything that doesn’t catch their eye without even opening it. Furthermore, anything from an unknown source that contains an attachment will be deleted to guard against viruses. Some will even automate parts of this process so any email from a particular source will be deleted even before it makes the inbox. I’d bet London to a brick that what will not happen is that hordes of swinging voters in New Zealand will eat up their leisure time glued to a computer screen reading political propaganda.
Email certainly has its place in modern life. However, my tip today is that the best way to communicate with someone for the first time is via traditional postal mail. It is delivered to you in person. There is little danger it contains viruses that will harm your computer. The person writing it usually takes considerable care over their language. Its layout can be enhanced with pictures and colours. However, perhaps its main advantage is that a personal letter is becoming increasingly rare, so its contents have much more chance of standing out from the crowd.
Peter Hind is a consultant for IDC and assists the Australian Computer Society in policy developments. He also heads the InTEP CIO gatherings in New Zealand and Australia. You can reach him at email@example.com.