Attachments Are Evil

Every day I get hundreds of email messages, and many of them have attached documents.  To everyone of them, I want to send the following reply message:  Thanks for Wasting Everyone’s Time.

Message senders do so with all the best intentions, but there is a better way to share documents, if only they would take the time to learn how.  Instead, they unwittingly propagate a pattern that wastes wastes time from everyone.  It is really not that hard to put the document in a document management system, and then mail a link to it.  Why is uptake so slow?  To help them along on the road to wisdom, here is the message that I would like to email back in response:

Dear Sender,

I writing in response to that document you just sent me by email. I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate it, which is not at all. I am sure that the document you sent might be useful to me someday, but for that to happen, I need to store it someplace where I will find it again when I need it. That means I have to read enough of the document in order to figure exactly how it should be classified. Even then, it can be ambiguous: do I put this under a particular customer name, and sometimes there are multiple, or under a salesperson’s name, which also might be multiple, or under the product name, which also might be multiple, or maybe a project name, or under the date I received it, or the date it was written, or possibly even the date on the title page of the document.

I think you can see that this only takes me a minute or two to decide where to save the document, but consider this: I receive dozens, if not hundreds, of documents every day, and this ends up taking a good part of an hour every day.

Wasting just my time being might be forgivable, but usually these documents sent by email are copied to tens or hundreds of other people, and every one of them goes through the same process. This means that across the company of 100 people several weeks of time is wasted every day, just to find the right place to store such documents.

That waste might be acceptable, except for how pointless it is. In most cases, the documents I receive are not the absolute final versions, and it is quite likely that before I get the chance to actually use that document, a newer version will be sent out. I will then waste the same amount of time finding a place to save that, but because it can be ambiguous where to save the document, and because priorities change over time, I am just as likely to save the new version in a different place. Then I will have two versions of the document floating around. Thus when I go to find the document, I am quite likely to find the wrong version, and not get the latest information, and that might be worse that not saving the document at all.

I am sure that you meant well, and imagine how awkward it is for me to complain about the document you are sharing with me. You are surely motivated by a desire to keep everyone informed, but probably don’t realize that this means of sharing causes a tremendous amount of work for everyone else.

May I suggest a better way: put the document in a repository or document management system that is accessible to everyone. Spend a few minutes tagging the document with the appropriate key words so that others can find it with a search. The message you were writing to me: instead put that in the description of the document. Then email me a link to the document letting me know it is there.

This way, I am informed about the new information, and can read it immediately if I want to. I can also be assured that it will be accessible in the future, if I need it, and I will be able to find it by searching at the normal document management system. If new versions of the document are produced, then put those new versions in the same place, on top of the older version, so when in the future I need this document, I will always get the latest one.

Yes, I know this is a little more work than just mailing the document as an attachment. But a couple of minutes of your time could save hours across the entire organization. If everyone does this, we all benefit. There will be fewer documents flowing through the email, we will all be spending less time saving and organizing documents, and we will be building a strategic library of documents that can be searched and found WHEN YOU NEED THEM.

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and your intention to share important information with colleagues was honorable, it is precisely this behavior that makes us weaker and less effective. Please be more considerate in the future.

Yours Truly,  Recipient

That is it.  It would be so simple, and such organizations would be more effective.  I fear that the incentives are all wrong.  If I put a document in a DMS, I never quite know if everyone else can access it from there.  I never quite know if the link is going to work for them the same it does for me.  And, if this document is sensitive, I can never be sure that the access control is correct so that the right people can see it, and only the right people.

True, it does take a little more effort to put the document someplace.  It is soooooo easy to just attach it to the message I am sending.  Fewer systems to coordinate: everyone who gets the message gets the attachment (unless removed by anti-virous software).  Why should the sender worry about the time wasted by the recipient, anyway?

I am doomed to be an email attachment librarian for the foreseeable future.


7 thoughts on “Attachments Are Evil

  1. This is probably going to waste more of your time. I have no idea of where to store documents so that someone can get to them. I think I am still teachable, but someone is going to have to show me how that is done. I will send the attachments on avocado recipes to Sylva. The Guacamole was very good. will try the Turkey, Avocado and Brie Panni and let you know if it is good.

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  5. Pingback: Post the Document on-line before Emailing it | Collaborative Planning & Social Business

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