Five for Friday (16/6/17)

Another week in which technology seems the least important thing in the world. Still, I’ve got nothing else to give, so here goes.

  1. Join the DH digital communities and channels team – two great jobs going on a great team at the Department of Health.
  2. Slack is raising another $500 million — and has attracted interest from a range of big buyers like Amazon – Slack is a really interesting tool. I swing wildly from thinking it’s not really that signficiant to considering it the harbinger of a new way of doing technology within organisations. As ever the truth is somewhere in the middle. The idea of Amazon buying it does not make a huge amount of sense to me. Amazon have inroads into big enterprise IT through their web services division of course, leading the way in the infrastructure as a service bit of cloud. They don’t have much (any?) of a footprint in software as a service – tools that actual users actually use. Do they want to get into that space? I’ve no idea but surely Google would be a better fit for Slack, and it would help out with the moribund and confusing state of the G Suite’s communications tools (Hangouts seems to have stagnated for years now).
  3. Survey points to digital skills gap in civil service and Public sector struggling with cloud due to skills shortage – to both of which my response is “yes, and?”. Seems to me that we see a lot of reporting of the problem with digital skills/confidence/mindset but very few examples or ideas around how to tackle it. If you’ve ideas to share, then please do so in the Digital Skills in the Workplace group on LinkedIn.
  4. History by lawsuit: After Gawker’s demise, the “inventor of e-mail” targets Techdirt – fascinating mixture of computer history combined with out and out oddness. The man who wrote a program called EMAIL claims this means he invested the generic tool e-mail.
  5. Minimum Viable Architecture – good enough is good enough in an enterprise – nice bit of myth-busting around the supposedly special requirements of IT in a larger organisation. The word ‘enterprise’ is used to justify all sorts of crap: higher prices, costly maintenance agreements, hard to use and complicated tools. The fact is that the only difference is one of time – bigger organisations have existed longer than most small ones and thus have built up baggage around infrastructure and process. Achieving change in such organisations means trying to reduce that cruft… as James notes in his post “If enterprises are going to drive a successful digital transformation, and develop a culture that supports agile development and devops, then they need less architecture, not more of it.”


These have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

Publishing stuff

One of the things I love about the internet most is the fact that it puts the power to publish into the hands of pretty much anybody. There are many ways of doing it these days, whether by using a tool like WordPress like I do here – which can be pretty complicated – or perhaps by using Medium, which continues to interest and confuse me in equal measure.

So I was quite excited to come across a really simple thing called which allows anyone to create public webpages by just sending an email.

I immediately got in touch with my friend Lloyd about this, knowing that he shares my enthusiasm for publishing stuff, and also how he really enjoyed using Posterous which did something similar, albeit in a slightly more complicated fashion. Posterous was bought and shut down by Twitter a few years ago. works in a ridiculously simple fashion. All you do is send an email to and a web page is created for you – the link to which sent by return to you. Any formatting in your email is preserved and any pictures you include are uploaded and added to your page.

Here’s my rather boring first effort at a page. Lloyd’s is a little more exciting.

And… that’s it. There’s nothing more to it and it really is that simple. Oh, except for collections. When you send your email, if you add a + and the name of a collection (basically a group of pages) after page and before the @ in the email address (so, for example, send to a dynamic list of those pages is then created, with its own URL, giving you a very rudimentary blog.

Here’s my rather boring first effort at a collection.

There’s loads missing, like human readable URLs, navigation links between pages and so forth. However, whether they come or not, is potentially really interesting as a way of very quickly getting text and images onto the web to share with others.

It’d be good to hear what folk think about tools like this, and what uses they could be put to.

Owen Barder on taking control of email

obI’ve just come across this post from Owen Barder, from back in 2012, providing his tips on managing email a bit more effectively.

Owen has a triage system for email which is based on four D’s:

  • Deal with it –
    If I can deal with an email in less than four or five minutes, I do so right away. For example, some emails only need a quick, one-line reply. It is better to do this right away than to have to deal with email again later.
  • Defer it –
    There are some tasks which will take longer than five minutes, or which cannot be dealt with immediately because they require additional information or some action by someone else. These I tag with the date on which I want to deal with them – either today or on some future date. That gets the email out of my inbox and ensures that I’ll be reminded of it again when I need to come back to it.
  • Delegate it –
    If I am going to delegate a task, I try to do so immediately when I am triaging emails. That way I can give as much time as possible to whoever I am asking to do the job. I usually then defer the original incoming email to the time that a response is due. When that email reappears in my inbox, it reminds me to check that it has been dealt with.
  • Delete or file –
    If an email does not require any action, but I want to keep it to refer to later, I either delete it or (more usually) file it.

Owen runs through this process only three or four times a day, and has switched off any realtime notifications of new email, so it doesn’t cause an interruption.

Another key part of Owen’s workflow is the use of a folder called ‘Today’ where all the email that needs to be actioned on the current day is kept.

Owen lists the reasons why this system works for him:

  • A trusted ‘to do’ list –
    There are few things more uncomfortable than the feeling that you may have forgotten to do something. It is very stressful trying to keep everything in your head at once, and it makes it difficult to concentrate on the thing you are working on at the moment. We need to park those tasks somewhere and be confident that they will come back to us in good time to handle them. By putting a particular date on each email, I can get the email out of my ‘inbox’ and off my desk, secure in the knowledge that it will reappear on my screen on the day I need to do something about it.
  • Zero inbox –
    For many of us, it is important to keep an eye on our inbox, and to deal with urgent emails as they arrive. But if our inbox is also our to-do list (and, in some cases, a filing cabinet), this means that every time we turn to our inbox, we are also confronted with an unsorted list of all the things we need to do. With the triage system, the inbox contains only recently arrived, unread emails. There is something very satisfying about having a generally empty inbox.
  • Avoid reading emails again and again –
    Emails used to sit in my inbox for weeks – I wanted to do something about them, but I was not yet ready or they were not yet urgent enough. I would read them again and again – sometimes several times a day – to check what was important or approaching a deadline. With the triage system, I read each email when it comes in. Many of them I deal with there an then; the others are put aside until the day that I have designated to handle it. I still read many emails too many times, but it is much less often than it used to be.
  • Create space for today –
    Because I live mostly in my ‘Today’ box, not my inbox, I have more time to concentrate on the work that I should be doing. I do not anxiously monitor incoming emails, because I know I will look at those later in the day.

Hopefully there are some useful tips in here that others can pick up for your own email productivity and workflow.

What’s your preferred system?

Fixing email : inbox zero

merlinmannSo I posed a fair few questions in my last post about email. How about some solutions?

Here’s one – inbox zero.

Inbox zero is… what? A methodology? A process? A mindset? Who knows. What we do know is that it is the brainchild of Merlin Mann, a productivity expert from the US.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Email’s just a medium
  • One place for anything
  • Process to zero
  • Convert to actions

Here’s the video from a few years ago whee Mann discussed the topic in detail.


If you don’t have time to watch that, here’s the quick version:

For every email you read, you should do one of the following things: delete it forever, archive it for reference, delegate it to someone else, respond immediately, or turn it into an action that you will execute at a later time or date.

In other words, move emails on fast. Get them out of your inbox and into the trash, in your archive, forward it on, reply, or make it an action.

People often make emails into actionable items by leaving them in their inbox, but this is bad. Instead, create a task in your todo list and then delete or archive the email. At the very least, have a folder in your email system called ‘Actions’ and drop it into there.

The keys to inbox zero are: first, that you recognise that actually you only receive a handful of emails every day that are worth more than a very cursory amount of your time. Second, your email software is good for receiving and sending email and that’s it. Third, get those worthwhile emails out of your inbox and into a more appropriate tool as quick as you can.

Have you tried inbox zero? How did you get on?

Why email often sucks

inboxOf all the systems we use at work, we probably spend more time in our email than anything else. I’d honestly say that at least 50% of my work is spent reading and responding to email. I’d wager that for some of you that percentage is even higher.

So, we spend a lot of time emailing, and this depresses people. Reading and writing email doesn’t feel like proper work – it ought to be a tool to let us do our work!

So why does email suck so much?

1) There is too much of it

This can’t be put down to just filter failure. There is too much email. The curse of the carbon copy is part of the issue here – for a number of reasons many people feel the need to copy all and sundry in on emails – often as a way to cover their own backs.

At the same time, most people working in big organisations have tiny mailboxes available to them. Regular users of services like Google Apps, with its vast 40GB mailbox size might be surprised to learn that some people in big organisations are only able to store 10MB of email at any one time.

The constant mithering about deleting email and reducing inbox size doesn’t help and only adds to the frustration.

2) People use it to do the wrong things

Here are a few examples:

  • Sending a short note to just one person? Maybe it would be better to send an instant message.
  • Can you see the person you’re emailing? If so, why not go and talk to them instead?
  • Sending a file round to lots of people to have a look at? Maybe it would be better to use a file sharing service like Dropbox.
  • Emailing a bunch of people to arrange a meeting? Maybe a scheduler like Doodle would be more effective.
  • Keeping an email because it has an important file attached to it? Save that file somewhere accessible where you can easily find it again
  • Emailing a group to have a discussion about a topic? Why not use a system that properly threads a conversation, so it’s much easier to see who is saying what to whom?
  • Hanging onto an email to remind you to do something? Use a task manager instead


3) Email software is often a bit rubbish

Big corporate email systems often don’t work terribly well, and sometimes encourage bad email behaviour.

One of the major problems is with search – hunting down a particular email is often very difficult. How many times have you seen an email covering previously agreed ground, because the email in which the original decision chain appeared in can’t be found?

A lot of modern email applications are seriously complicated too. Outlook for example has its fans as well as detractors, but nobody could suggest it features an uncluttered interface.

Given how much time we spend in these applications, it’s a real problem that they aren’t that bit more intuitive to use.

4) Lack of context

Once you get past one or two replies to a conversation, email conversations lose their thread pretty quickly, especially when different people get added halfway through.

One of the innovations in the last few years to help tackle this problem is conversation threading, where all the messages relating to a specific thread are kept together. However this is usually implemented – as far as I can see – using the subject line as the key for the thread, which means that unrelated emails that use the same subject line get caught up in the net.

Also – how many people do you know who just hit reply to an irrelevant email to send one on another topic, without bothering to edit the subject line?

5) Vague etiquette

While nobody would ever admit to not knowing how to use email, there are some vague areas where it’s pretty hard to be sure what you should do.

How about:

  • if you are cc’d (or even bcc’d) on an email, does that mean you should reply, or are you included just for info?
  • Is top posting allowed these days, or ought every reply be inline?
  • Is it acceptable for someone replying to an email to add people to the distribution, or even take them off?
  • When should you reply all, and when not?


…there’s nothing wrong with email itself. It remains a tremendously helpful way of sending information from one place to another in a speedy way, where an instant response isn’t required.

Often it is just poorly used, and that’s probably because the right tools for the job just aren’t available. More on that in another post.

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Digital democracy: some quick and easy ideas

Following up on my earlier post on tweeting meetings, here are a bunch of quick, easy – and probably free – ideas for getting started with digital engagement.

I put them together for a conference talk today on how local councils – parishes and towns – can use digital communications, along with more traditional approaches, to reach and engage with more people. The conference was a joint effort by the Norfolk Association of Local Councils and the Society for Local Council Clerks.

The point I was trying to get across is that there are some small actions you can try with minimal risk, need for knowledge, cost and so on – but which could have a really positive impact on participation levels.

The list includes:

  1. Tweet a meeting
  2. Start an email newsletter
  3. Map your parish
  4. Ask for ideas
  5. Verify a decision
  6. Run a web chat
  7. Hold a Skype surgery
  8. Become your local area’s online hub

The slides are embedded below, or you can download a PDF if you’d rather.

[slideshare id=13529693&doc=norfolk-alc-july2012-120703120837-phpapp01]

Announcing MailCamp: effective email marketing in the public sector

A cross post from Steph’s blog to help publicise this event!

Just a quick one to pimp MailCamp11, a free show + tell event about email marketing in the public sector, now confirmed for 12 May at the Dept of Communities and Local Government.


Everyone’s on a budget, and wants to make their digital channels work harder. Social media matters, but nothing drives traffic and reminds people what you’re doing like a good email newsletter or alert. But we’re all busy, and optimising our newsletters and email alerts often isn’t top of the list.

The long-promised spin-off event from UKGovcamp, MailCamp is a one-off show & tell event on 12 May for people interested in how the public sector uses email marketing, newsletter and alerts to engage its audiences. Come along to a free afternoon of ideas and stories, bringing your own examples, tips and questions.

To find out more and register your interest in coming along, check out And spread the word!