Sunday, December 4, 2011

How Brunel Built Bridges, Railways & Steamships Without Email

How did Brunel build bridges and steamships without email, powerpoint and other modern communication tools, asks a recent question on Quora.com.  You don't have to go back so far; at the end of the 1960s NASA sent men to the moon and returned them safely to the earth with little more than slide rules, typewriters and carbon paper. But the question is interesting because when you think about it Brunel was perhaps better off not having email.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the Steve Jobs of the 1800s, pioneering  modern railways and metal steamships that could cross the Atlantic. His list of achievements is more than impressive and he is rightly considered one of the greatest engineers who ever lived. Brunel lived in interesting times where he witnessed the development of the postal service and the electric telegraph but for most of his business communication he relied on paper messages hand carried by messengers -- just like people did until the 1980s.

Until email went mainstream businesses relied mostly on paper messages carried by mail room employees who walked around the offices, collecting and delivering mail several times a day. An internal memo left in your outbox would be in someone else's inbox within a few hours at most. This might sound slower than email if you consider only the delivery time, but in any communication you have to also consider the overall time between sending a message and getting a reply, In theory you could get a reply to your email in seconds, but take a look at your inbox now and ask yourself how many messages you will answer in less than half a day. It is quite likely that your actual performance is not really much better than in Brunel's day.

Thanks to a combination of the mail service and the fast-growing railway network, Brunel could get a message to anyone in the country within the same day. With the electric telegraph he could also get urgent news much faster. If email had been invented then I am sure he would have used it but I am not so sure it would have made much difference to his work. This is partly because the time spent preparing a reply is often longer than the delivery time, but also because email can often impact productivity  as people spend too much time on low priority mails or get distracted by incoming email alerts.

Many people now recognize the negative impact of email and some companies -- like Atos in France -- are planning to eliminate at least internal email, replacing it with other tools or simply more real interaction between people. You could argue, though, that with better training people could use email more effectively. Most unwanted traffic can be eliminated simply by teaching everyone how to use mail effectively, using techniques like the ones I mentioned in Three Timesaving Tips for Email.

Meanwhile email is being replaced more and more by newer tools that allow more natural interactions between people. Younger people often communicate more through Facebook than email, many others prefer video chats like Google+ Hangouts and others like simple text chatting. As these people enter the workforce we can expect a natural decline in email use. Email was a great idea when it was invented and it changed the way people worked in offices, but it was never indispensable and eventually the time will come when it becomes another historical curiosity like the telex machine and the telegraph, though the lack of interoperable standards means this will not be happening any time soon.


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Related Posts about Email
Three Timesaving Tips for Email 
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email
Why New Solutions Fail to Oust Email in Business Communications


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