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Emails and Knowledge Management

1 April 2016

Oded Avital

 Knowledge Management deals with the flow of knowledge in and between organizations. A substantial portion of this knowledge is concealed in emails.

This is a seemingly positive finding since the email protocol is an excellent knowledge conveying channel. It is available and familiar; it is simple and comfortable; it instantly bridges over gaps of culture, time and distance. Even the harshest of critics admit its superior appliance. Yet this simplicity is precisely the fly in the ointment since for the last two decades it has caused the catastrophe of email overload; this is perhaps the most painful aspect of the data overload issue. In this brave, new world created by the internet, people waste their time and energy desperately attempting to empty their email inbox; besides the harm to cognition, creativity, organizational efficiency and general quality of life, this everflowing stream of incoming emails harms Knowledge Management. This vast amount (a daily 100 incoming  emails is typical) can hardly be read by its reciever; this turns the inbox into a knowledge quicksand, a black hole in which knowledge disappears. The biggest problem is that senders aren’t even aware of the unfortunate fate of their messages. One sends and forgets, the other receives and ignores.

It’s not that receivers don’t try to read their emails; but with limited time on their hands, they open only the most urgent emails, even if they are not the most important ones. Emails containing lots of data are usually regarded as “important yet not urgent” and slip into the virtual abyss.

Furthermore, knowledge retainment in retrievable form is very difficult since search tools featured in most email applications are too crude to be considered a solution. There are few organizations that implement advanced and expensive tools that enable a comprehensive search throughout the entire organization. These tools are relevant for structured organizational knowledge; this does not apply to emails. In short, an enormous untapped pool of knowledge scattered between users which is inaccessible even to its holder.

Some suggested solutions are methodological: several approaches recommend sorting incoming mail in order to empty the inbox more quickly. These solutions are insufficient and can be analogized to one trying dry up a river using a spoon being offered a ladle. The flow will rage on; there is a limit to how many emails one can consciously manage each day. I believe the solutions requires accepting the fact that the current situation does not allow users to read or answer all emails. The next stage is suggesting solutions that involve detecting and prioritizing the emails deemed worth a read or response. It is easier to accept that workers treat only a small portion of emails when we know that these are the most important and relevant emails at the moment.

AI software solutions are being currently developed. They will probably feature the following abilities:

  • Analyzing messages and comprehending their meaning and relevance in current work context, while considering the relationship between the different parties as well as the time the receiver has on his/her hands and the subject of the correspondence.

  • Studying the user’s manner of conduct in different situations overtime.

  • Tagging mail for future treatment (notifications scheduled for relevant date only).

  • Context-sensitive search engine that prioritizes messages vital for the user’s current needs. This is a possible solution for the second problem I mentioned  (identifying and retrieving emails “buried” in the system).

These tools can solve the dissonance between email and KM: users know that this flood isn’t going to stop anytime soon, yet due to the ability to prioritize emails according to current personal priorities they can intelligently approach the right data at the right time according to each worker’s goals. The computer gave us email overload, it is only right to exploit it for solutions.


Oded Avital is the vice president of Knowmail which develops software addressing email overload in organizations. For further details, contact Oded at

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