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Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Tip - email etiquette/netiquette, and using computer resources wisely

This material has been consolidated from sound policy advice provided by major computer companies.

A general rule of life is that, if left undisturbed, people will tend to follow the path of least resistance and fall into bad habits.

This rule can also be applied to the way people use email. In the early days of email, in the late 1970s or early 1980s when companies first installed email systems, email was mainly for the use of company employees and relatively few people received mailboxes - it was almost a mark of respect to have an email address. Email was rather in the private domain. Few companies supported external access to mailboxes, and fewer still allowed employees to connect from home. Today, email is in the public domain, is ubiquitous, and each of us is able to access free email on many different systems and can connect to email using a variety of devices and different network links, ranging from notebook PCs across VPNs to RIM Blackberries across public wireless networks.

In the early days, there was a form of email etiquette - necessitated as much by the need to conserve what were previously scare storage and network bandwidth resources as to be courteous of peoples' time. However, people newly starting to use email may be ignorant of that past, and though some of that etiquette could now be regarded as archaic, much of it could still apply in today's hectic world. We could still reduce demands on and conserve finite storage and network resources, and maybe make all of our lives a little simpler, if we followed some basic rules in email conversations. Listed below are some basic rules of email etiquette that may help to make email easier for us all to deal with. Apart from reducing stress levels, email etiquette can generate lower loads on servers and networks and reduce the size of email stores, in turn reducing workload for administrators who have to backup and maintain the data.

The world is not perfect and we cannot expect email systems to function perfectly either. Email users are human beings, and human beings make mistakes, do things inefficiently, and take short cuts whenever possible. By following the major points of email etiquette outlined below, email users can minimise network traffic and reduce the amount of duplicate data held on email servers. There are bad and good habits, but perhaps there is a pressing question as to why people fall into bad habits. The answer could be:
(a) because of a lack of training or a failure of organisations to train users and communicate expectations regarding the proper use of email, or
(b) because people are relatively ignorant as to how email systems work, and have never had to think about how to use email more efficiently and effectively, and have succumbed to the trap of relying on user-friendly software.

Major Bad Habits
Any email user could fall easily into five major bad email habits. These are:
  1. Copying too many people – the "reply all" syndrome;
  2. Not compressing large attachments;
  3. Including graphics in auto signatures;
  4. Including unnecessary text from previous replies in current conversations; and
  5. Unwittingly spamming addressees with unwanted email.
Minor Bad Habits
Some of the major bad habits may have only arisen in the last decade, or they may have existed since the commissioning of the very first email system. There are many other smaller points of email etiquette that cause people grief. These include:
  • BCC replies to ALL: Replying with a message to ALL, for an email that you received as a BCC recipient, when the author really would have preferred you not to disclose the BCC by replying that way.
  • Unauthorised forwarding: Forwarding a message to a new set of recipients without permission of the original author - this is especially grievous if you (say) send a company-confidential the message to external recipients, thus risking disclosing corporate information that should stay inside the company.
  • Corporate policy breach: Along the same lines, it is not good etiquette and it may even be against a company’s policies or rules of business conduct to add an external recipient to an email discussion. The golden rule here is never to include an external recipient on any correspondence that might contain company confidential information.
  • Inadequate auto reply messages: Using an auto reply (e.g., "Out of office") message where you do not give useful information to the recipient. It may be nice to know that you are enjoying yourself on holiday, but even better to know where to go to (preferably with a telephone number and email address) in your absence.
  • Other minor/thoughtless breaches of etiquette: These can usually cause frustration only and do not absorb additional resources. However, the frustration level can be intense especially if you inadvertently tell someone about something that they should learn in another manner. For example, telling someone that you have heard that they are about to be promoted when you are not their boss is possibly acceptable; telling them that they are going to move to another job is not.

Good Habits
There are some good habits that you can get into. For example:
  • Summarise key points up front: Because many people use SmartPhones, PDAs such as the Blackberry, and Pocket PCs to read their email, it is best to write short messages or at least place the key points up front so that readers can understand right up front what it is that you want to say, without their having to go through multiple screens to find out. It is also a good idea not to have important points or questions at the bottom of messages because readers may never see them.
  • Minimise the number of messages: Do not respond immediately to a request if you do not have all the necessary information. Instead, wait until you have the information and then send a complete answer. In this case, it is always appropriate to send a short acknowledgement to indicate that you are working on the issue.
  • Be clear about your subject (topic) and change it if necessary: The volume of email continues to rise, so it is helpful to use clear subjects so that recipients can pick the most important messages out of their inboxes. Spammers pay a lot of attention to creating compelling message subjects and maybe this is something we can learn from them. If the topic being discussed changes during a message thread, then alter the message subject to reflect the new discussion.
  • Keep your email in native form: Never use a word processor(e.g., Microsoft Word) to compose a message and then send it as an attached document. Instead, use the advanced features of the email editor to format your text. Sending unnecessary attachments occupies valuable network bandwidth, ties up disk space, and makes the message hard for SmartPhone and Blackberry users to view.
  • Sleep on it: This last good habit may save your job, or save you from a libel case, or at least stop you from angering someone. It may feel enormously gratifying to compose a most cutting and sarcastic response to someone's inept ideas expressed in a message that you receive, but it might be more prudent to save your response as a draft and come back to it a few hours later (or next day) when some matured reflection may convince you that maybe it is a bad idea to send the text as written. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to send a message written in haste or when drunk, and then consider the consequences at leisure.
  • Avoid mistaken/premature sending: Some email packages include a message recall function, but these are limited in effectiveness - the speed and efficiency with which email systems can deliver messages, plus the vast array of devices (SmartPhones, Blackberries, etc.) that someone can use to receive messages on, means that the recall function may have little chance of being able to retrieve the message before it is read. It may be prudent to at least pause and save the message, leave it for an hour or so, and then review it before sending. Do not leave the message open, waiting to be sent, because it is easy to make a mistake and send the message inadvertently. If you do leave the message open, include an undeliverable address (such as “XXX”) in the TO: or CC: line so that the email service displays an “invalid or non-existant email address” warning when you try to send it.
The "Reply all" syndrome
When you receive a message, you have two basic reply options: either send a response back to the author, or, share your opinion with everyone who received the original message. Sadly, many users rush to reply to everyone without thinking things through. The worst examples are where someone sends a note to a large distribution list to announce that a new product or service is available, initiating a flood of "Please send me details" messages results, where each is faithfully copied to everyone on the address list. This sort of thing could result in some few members of the list deciding that they want to leave, so they send a reply back to the list to say "Please remove me," which provokes some more responses, and so on. It is depressing when people in these situations cannot correctly make a simple decision about the appropriate option to take, thus potentially wasting many peoples' time.

The best practice is to generate a selective response to any message by minimizing the recipients. If you only need to communicate with one person, then do not include everyone else. In addition, if you really must reply to everyone, consider moving all the addressees in the TO: line of an original message to the CC: line when you reply. This is because etiquette dictates that the presence of someone on the TO: line means that they may be expected to take action on the information in the message, whilst those copied on the CC: line are there solely for information. Many users now employ email filtering rules to prioritise incoming messages where their name is in the TO: line, as opposed to the CC: line.

The issue of sending and handling large attachments
Statistically, he average size (in bytes) of messages seems to have grown steadily over the last decade. Ten years ago, most corporate email accounts were on "green screen email" systems and the average message contained less than a page of text. Thus, fetching a message from the server generated no more than 4-6KB traffic and we were able to happily use 9.6kbps modems.

If you track statistics from email servers over a period, you will invariably find an increase in the average message size, to well over 100KB in many companies. Whilst messages with large multi-megabyte attachments are the chief culprit in raising the average, amongst the reasons why today's email systems handle much larger messages are:
  • The drag-and-drop paradigm implemented in software - such as Windows Explorer and Outlook, for example - which makes it so easy to add an attachment to a message that people add attachments almost without thinking;
  • People use graphics more extensively to convey ideas, so documents, presentations, and spreadsheets are full of diagrams, charts, and pictures (which have relatively larger data volumes than just text);
  • A wider range of software is used and few packages compress data;
  • In some countries (and especially in the US), network bandwidth has become so plentiful and cheap that people take it much for granted (like water out of a tap) and do not need to consider minimising bandwidth (resource) absorption;
  • Users increasingly have more sophisticated message editors (e.g., Microsoft Word), so they can more easily cause graphics to be embedded/included in their message content;
  • Storage costs are far cheaper, so the ever-growing size of files does not have such a huge cost impact as it may have once done, and users can have larger mailbox quotas so they do not see the need to change the way they handle attachments.

Nevertheless, storage and bandwidth are finite resources. We could all endeavour to become more efficient in the use of these resources, by, for example, using and educating other users to use compression utilities like WinZIP, to compress large attachments before adding them to messages. Some files - e.g., text and Microsoft Word files - compress well, sometimes to a small fraction of their uncompressed size. However, compression utilities are less successful in significantly reducing the size of other file types (e.g., image files, PowerPoint files). Where compression utilities are available, users often do not know how to, or forget to compress attachments, or the additional step makes the email system feel less friendly to the user, so they may avoid it. Where compression utilities are not available, then system administrators need to distribute copies of the chosen utility to all desktops.

For some years now, ZIP compression has been built into the Windows XP operating system, but not every user is necessarily aware of this. However current major email systems or email clients do not automatically compresses and decompresses large messages as they transit the email system, So, if you want to trade CPU cycles (to process the messages) against bandwidth and storage, you have to install additional products. For example, C2C’s MaX Compression product automatically compresses and decompresses attachments as users send and receive them through Outlook. Modules of the same product are available for Outlook Web Access working within both Exchange 5.5 and later Exchange 2000/2003 and later servers.

This combination of current versions of Outlook and Exchange helps with the compression issue, because Exchange automatically compresses and decompresses message bodies and attachments if you connect to it with Outlook clients. The need for separate compression utilities almost goes away, but only if you upgrade your complete environment to current Windows, Exchange and Outlook versions, and you may still need to deal with other clients such as OWA, Outlook Express, and so on. (e.g., refer Microsoft KB0487 for information about how Exchange 2003 and Outlook 2003 compress message content.)

The issue of auto signatures
People who work across low-bandwidth network links will often find that bloated auto signature files are the bane of their messaging life. The difference in connect times across 28.8kbps connections that result because people send messages that contain 2KB of useful data but end up at 50KB to accommodate a spinning, 3D, or other form of graphic intense logo is annoying when you have just one message. The degree of annoyance could becomes infuriating when 20% or more of your inbox items are similarly bloated. Apart from absorbing valuable bandwidth and slowing user ability to process email, graphics soak up storage and create pressure on mailbox quotas. It would be interesting to survey many Exchange mailbox stores to discover just how much work administrators have to do on a daily basis, to take backups of graphics and other useless data, not to mention the expense required to provide and manage the storage that they occupy.

For example, if you include (say) a 50KB graphic in your signature, then, after you have sent 100 messages, your own mailbox contains 5MB of redundant, duplicated graphics. Would you or any other user accept a voluntary reduction of 5MB in their mailbox quota? Yet many users cheerfully accept this overhead by default, without thinking. Moreover, if you scale this up for 1,000 users on a server, you end up with 5GB of useless data.

Auto signature files originated in the UNIX world as a convenient way to transmit some personal contact information along with your messages so that recipients could follow up with you by phone, fax, or whatever medium was appropriate. The original auto signature files are text only and consist of a couple of lines. For example:
              Joe Bloggs
              Telephone: +1 606 5439 21870

Signatures can create litter. You can clearly see the intention behind auto signature files in RFC1855, which covers netiquette:
"If you include a signature keep it short. The rule of thumb is no longer than 4 lines. Remember that many people pay for connectivity by the minute, and the longer your message is, the more they pay. "
RFC1855 appeared in 1995 and focused on a world where dial-up connects were the de facto standard and people worried about paying telephone companies by the minute, a feature of life outside of the United States. The authors would have been unable to foresee a time when users could cheerfully include a spinning multi-coloured 3D logo in their email signature.

Apart from logos, trademarks, and other public information like a URL to the company's web site, it is unwise to include corporate information in an auto signature file. Titles and the name of your group are acceptable, as long as they make sense to the recipient, but if you send this information outside the company, you always have to be aware that recruiters or other people who want to learn about the company's organisation for their own purposes may wish to use the information in ways you had not imagined.

If you really must include a logo in your auto signature file, then use a low-resolution GIF file to keep the data size to a minimum. This is much better for all concerned than the other variations of corporate logos that are usually designed to be used in advertising or other graphically rich situations. If you wish to include a corporate logo in your auto signature, then take care to follow any prevailing corporate guidelines on the use of such logos in auto signatures. You could also consider pointing to an ecard in your autosignature instead.

It is possible that some corporate email gateways would negate the desired effect of a logo, on external correspondents' email systems, if they strip out graphics in message bodies (not attachments) as messages pass through the gateways. Companies are always concerned about viruses, and it is possible to hide a virus behind a graphic or embed instructions to launch a virus inside the data for a graphic, so it is also possible that anti-virus scanners will remove the logos too. Therefore, the result could be that the only people you can share the logos with are internal recipients - who would already know what your company's logo looks like in any event.

Another consideration is the impact on, and courtesy to recipients. Whilst it may be acceptable for you to let everyone else inside the company know about what the current corporate logo looks like, it may be a different matter when you send excessive data to other companies - because you are now consuming
  • their network bandwidth,
  • their  time, and
  • their  storage to hold whatever you care to transmit.
People already complain about SPAM, because these messages absorb IT resources and human time, which all have a cost. Might they consider your superb graphically intense messages in the same light?

Redundant data, and repetition/duplication in email
Email can be notoriously inefficient. If you analyse a typical mailbox store, then you will likely find that along with the graphics, uncompressed files, and "me too" messages, many database pages are occupied with redundant data generated by users automatically including the text ("thread") of previous email messages into their reply. Sometimes they do not make a conscious decision to include this text thread, because it is the email package's default behaviour as set by the user or system administrator.

Maintaining the context of a discussion is the major advantage of including the text in a reply to a message. This is certainly a valuable feature, but only if people use it wisely and not when it becomes the way that they generate every reply.

As an example, let us consider what happens in a typical email exchange.

  1. User A sends a message to seek opinions from 10 colleagues. The original message is 5KB.
  2. User B uses "Reply All" and includes User A's original text. This message is 10KB.
  3. User C now responds with "Reply All" and includes the text from User B's message along with his comments. The message has grown to 20KB.
  4. The cycle continues until everyone has contributed and the final message that holds the complete thread might now be 100KB. At this point, everyone involved probably has 10 messages occupying 200KB or more in their mailbox. While tidy users will clean up and only keep the last message in a thread, many user do not do this, and the result could be a lot of redundant information that is stored until someone - the user or a tool like a "mailbox manager" - comes along to clean the litter up.
Best practice is only to include the text from previous messages when needed, not as default behaviour.

Knowledge Management versus generating internal SPAM
Within any large company, it can often be difficult to discover where you should look to find a piece of information or some knowledge on a particular point. The goal of Knowledge Management is to create an environment where people know how to collaborate and how to use repositories that hold useful information. If a company deploys good Knowledge Management systems and if people understand how to use and exploit those systems, then you should not see frantic appeals in email sent to ALL (or large distribution lists), asking for help about various problems. Yet these appeals happen even in companies that have invested heavily in Knowledge Management. The question is why.

One reason is that people simply do not know about all of the tools at their disposal. They may be new entrants, whom  no-one has yet told about where to look or how to find things. Another reason is that the immediacy of email lures people into seeking knowledge by sending messages to distribution lists of people who they think might be able to help. This can be "hit-and-miss" - sometimes the technique is successful, and a member of the list is able to send back a fast response, sometimes not. However, in all cases, even when the originator receives a helpful answer, everyone on the list has had to deal with the original message and any replies.

Another example of internal spam occurs when someone decides that it is time for them to leave the list and they send a message to the complete list to request that their name be removed from the list. This is simply laziness on the part of the sender, as they have not attempted to discover who the list maintainer is to ask them the question. In most cases, if the list is an Exchange distribution group, then you can view the properties of the list through the GAL to discover who takes care of the list and then send them a request to be removed - instead of needlessly filling hundreds of mailboxes with spam.

Large international companies usually maintain several internal group mail distribution lists (also listservers), some of which could have hundreds or thousands of members. Thus, any message sent to these lists would potentially generate thousands of messages that have to be transported across a worldwide network and delivered to hundreds of mailboxes on hundreds of servers. Whilst email routing systems may be very efficient and only generate additional copies of messages when necessary, the sheer number of members of these lists could mean that a huge message volume is created, representing a large processing burden to the routing systems. Even though such systems may support single-instance storage in their databases, the delivery of these messages to many different servers will result in a lot of duplicated data. Lists are an invaluable business tool because they allow people to share important information that they need, to do their work.
Best practice is to use email sparingly, and take the time to look for existing knowledge more carefully before resorting to internal SPAM.
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