Why is it so hard to wean people off of e-mail and into the “network centric” environment provided by today’s information technology?

While reading The Addicted Brain [ BIOTECHNOLOGY ], in the March 2004 issue of Scientific American, the idea that e-mail is like an addiction for organizations came to mind. (I don’t know why, but I seem to have a tendency to analogize a lot of things into an organizational behavior context.) A couple of specific things in the article stood out.

  • Neurobiologists have long known that the euphoria induced by drugs of abuse arises because all these chemicals ultimately boost the activity of the brain’s reward system.

    Through sheer volume, e-mail in organizations today gives the impression of productivity (a “reward” for the organization). If all this communication is going back and forth, a lot must be getting done, so e-mail must be a good thing for the organization.

  • [S]omething happens after repeated exposure to drugs of abuse…. The amount that once produced euphoria doesn’t work as well, adn users come to need a shot or a snort just to feel normal.

    When the flow of e-mail slows, or worse stops altogether, many organizations grind to a halt. E-mail is necessary to operate. Even though there are other ways to communicate in the absence of e-mail, their is a feeling that something is missing. As soon as e-mail comes back, the organization binges to “catch up” and “get back to normal.”

The article goes on in great detail describing the biological causes and possible solutions/treatments for biological addiction. Many of the behaviors, and causes of the behaviors in terms of connections of neurons and long lasting effects, can similarly be mapped onto an organizational behavior or symptom.

I guess what really stands out to me is the process described in the article of treating the addiction. In organizations people make connections, in many ways similar to how neurons in the brain make connections (another analogy). E-mail has created a process of connection making and maintenance, as well as an information management process, that can become a significant drain on productivity and impediment to improvement. Figuring out the how/why of this may help figure out how to break the habit of e-mail in favor of new ways of doing things.

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