Before I launch into this week's commentary, an update from Microsoft TechEd 2004: Microsoft Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky announced that Microsoft Office 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1), due this summer, will contain fixes for some 400 issues. These fixes will resolve 40 percent of user-reported crashes in various Office products. SP1 will also include updates to 3400 Help topics and articles, according to Sinofsky.
The US military has long been one of the largest users of Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook. Like any other organization, the military is subject to information overload and is making an effort to educate users about effective use of email in general and Outlook in particular. The US Air Force's 22-page "Commander's Guide to Managing E-mail" offers a wealth of tips and is one of the best examples I've seen for any organization trying to develop internal email policies or looking for ways to help users spend less time fiddling with their Inboxes and more time using email to get their jobs done. Both experienced managers and entry-level staffers can benefit from guidelines that explain what importance the organization attaches to email, how quickly it expects everyone to respond to messages, and what the basic rules of "netiquette" are within the organization.
The Guide starts out with a top 10 list that's part policy and part practical advice. If everyone followed rule #8--"Only reply to email that absolutely requires a response"--just imagine how much less cluttered your Inbox would be! I'm all in favor of rule #4, too: "Subject lines should include keywords and describe the content of the message."
When it comes to writing style, the Guide recommends clarity, brevity, courtesy-–and a minimum of sarcasm and humor. Your most important point, it says, should appear in the first paragraph, and the whole message should usually be no more than three paragraphs or a maximized window of text. When you need to send a longer document, the Guide suggests that you send a link to a file stored on a shared drive, Web site, or public folder rather than attaching a file.
The Guide suggests using a four- or five-level structure to organize your Inbox. The top level might consist of items that need a response within 24 hours, followed by mail from superiors and peers. The six colors of mail flags available in Office Outlook 2003 make it easy to color-code messages in such a system.
More than a dozen tips for mid-level managers deserve study: "Don't use email as a crutch to avoid ... interaction with subordinates," and "Don't assume your email is received and understood; follow up on accuracy of the tasking or question" are just two of these gems. The Guide also suggests that a phone call or visit can often achieve the same results in less time than an email exchange can.
Another feature of the Guide is a clear statement of when users can use email for unofficial or personal communications. Jokes are out, but a reasonable amount of personal use is OK. The Guide also includes information about official records-management requirements. Does your organization explain clearly to employees how their email is being kept for posterity?
Beyond policy and etiquette prescriptions, the Guide also includes a lot of practical information and screen shots illustrating how to use AutoArchive, Mailbox Cleanup, and other Outlook features to manage the size of an Exchange mailbox. The instructions for how to use the Rules Wizard address many of the more subtle points, such as creating a rule from an existing message to avoid typos in the rule conditions, using the "stop processing" action to prevent more than one rule from processing a particular message, and making a backup copy of rules by exporting to a .rwz file. Another great tip is to clear any message flag reminders before forwarding a message; many people don't realize that when you forward a flagged message, Outlook copies the flag from the original message to the new message. If that flag has a reminder date, the message will turn red in the forward recipient's folder list and, if it's still in that person's Inbox, will pop up a reminder. Your boss might not appreciate that intrusion.
Every organization should explain to its staffers how they're expected to use email and how they can use the available email tools to perform their jobs more effectively. Email skills vary: An experienced lawyer with a lot of organizational and legal knowledge can still be an email novice. If Outlook is your email tool, the "Air Combat Commander's Guide to Managing E-mail" is a good, detailed example you can use to start developing your own internal policy and training materials. "Commander's Guide to Managing E-mail" http://www2.acc.af.mil/library/commander's%20guide%20to%20managing%20%20e-mail.doc