Ask almost any employee what the most expensive software is for a university. I think most people would respond by talking about our financial system, SAP. I disagree. I think email is where we spend the most money by far, but I wonder whether it’s where we derive the most value.

Roll the clock back about fifty years or so, and I think most people would agree that the typewriter was the most important piece of machinery in any office. Then I imagine a new employee’s reaction if a manager in the 1970s told the employee that a major responsibility of a new job was to use the typewriter to write letters to people in the same office and to respond to any letters a colleague happened to send. The new employee would probably decide that the office was crazy and walk off the job on the very first day!

As absurd as that situation sounds, we sometimes treat our computers in exactly this way. We spend large amounts of time either writing emails to one another or responding, often to the person sitting at a desk within shouting distance. It sometimes seems as if this daily correspondence with our colleagues has become a major part of our jobs — particularly if we think about the time we spend on these activities.

A 2012 report by McKinsey & Company suggests that 28 hours is the amount of time spent each week writing emails, searching for information, and collaborating internally. The report goes on to say that the solution to the problem is to make greater use of social technology and networks: “we find that the use of social networks to improve communication within and across enterprises could contribute two-thirds of the $900 billion to $1.3 trillion in value that we estimate can be created across the four commercial sectors [consumer packaged goods, consumer financial services, professional services, and advanced manufacturing] we study.” I am not certain that I agree with the conclusion, but it does seem as if there’s a better way. Personally, if I need to tell a colleague something, I am inclined to get off my chair and walk over and tell the person. People might argue that that is also a costly and time-consuming way of doing business. But I believe that:

  • It’s more friendly and provides the opportunity to engage with an employee in a meaningful way.
  • It’s more efficient. A human conversation is like parallel processing. Responses are instant and conclusions are more collaborative.
  • People don’t get offended as often because you have the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings on the spot.
  • It’s a lot more fun!

The magazine, Inc, published an infographic collected by a company called Contatta. Contatta has a product that claims to enable people to move toward greater collaboration than traditional email offers. Even when you consider that there must be a strong measure of self-interest behind Contatta’s data, it is nevertheless amazing. The assumption is that we spend 13 hours a week on email. This amounts to 637 hours per person a year, over $15,000 per employee per year, or almost $1.8 trillion for the whole country.

That number is:

  • Enough to hand out $5,637 to every single person in the country
  • More than 13.4 times the wealth of Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffett combined
  • About the same as the GDP of every county in Africa
  • Enough to buy everyone in Austin, Texas, a $1.7 million Bugatti Veyron

Whether you believe these numbers or not, we can all agree that the cost of email is huge. The question is whether it is money well spent. I suspect that email is a luxury that we sometimes don’t like. And nor can we afford it!

Tell us what you think!