It was 1999 and I was on a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, a grueling 17 hour jaunt that always ends with dead laptop batteries and this feeling like you’ve been up all night on a plane; oh yeah, I was up all night on a plane. Just prior to my departure I caught an episode of King of Queens in the United Air Lines International Lounge. I was munching on some of those really nice snacks only available in the international lounge while working on my speaker notes for a series of presentations that lay ahead in 8 Australian cities. My presentations focused on programmer productivity through better configuration management practices, but it also touched on the nature of email and how software engineers can get out of synch using email as their primary collaboration infrastructure. Programmers (as smart as they may seem) swamp the productivity boat in a variety of ways and my trip was an evangelistic attempt to underscore the value of configuration management tools and sound development processes.
King of Queens was a CBS sitcom set in Queens, NY whose star, Doug Heffernan (played by Kevin James) lived with his wife (Carrie) and father-in-law (Arthur) under one roof. Arthur, played by veteran actor and comedian Jerry Stiller, was somewhat peculiar; his character was un-trusting and suffered from a serious case of paranoia. In this particular episode, Carrie mentions to Doug that it would be nice if he spent more time hanging out with Arthur in his basement suite – she encourages Doug, suggesting it might be fun to bond more with her father (Arthur). Doug retorts “Arthur’s room is where fun goes to die“. At that very instant, a useful theme for my lecture became obvious, and the title of this book was born. I mimicked the humor in this crafty statement and applied it to a completely different situation; ergo, Email is where knowledge goes to die. It became the cornerstone quote of my presentation in Australia and drew a good deal of press and significant positive feedback. Since then, Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) has also used Doug’s infamous and funny line and my own version can be found in many blogs and articles on the web.
Thank you CBS writers Michael J. Weithorn, David Litt, and David Bickel for an inspirational wind-shear that helped me understand a fundamental truth.
More important than the humor of this statement is how well people relate to it. Everyone agrees – email is a knowledge cul-de-sac – a dead end for valuable ideas – a graveyard of potential. Email is where corporate IQ kicks back and has a brewski. Email also contributes to corporate amnesia; forgetfulness that costs businesses millions – perhaps billions in repeated mistakes every year.
Email is also wasteful; threads grow with unending off-topic discussions and CC lists expand, eroding productivity in all corners of the enterprise. Indeed, email is a problem but imagine trying to do business without it. Even with the massive heat-loss from this antiquated and weak communications model, two things are clear; (i) no one has come up with a better approach that has challenged or displaced email, and (ii) it works pretty well in spite of its shortcomings. But there must be something better – that’s the subject of a book that I may someday write.