The Tyranny of Emails: An Insoluble Problem?
By Dr Paul Winter and Maj T Pengelley RM
In 2018 it was estimated that 269 billion e-mails were sent around the globe. By 2022, it is predicted, this number will have swollen to an incredible 333 billion e-mails.Yet behind these bold statistics lurks an uncomfortable truth, namely that this exponential growth in e-mails is making it increasingly difficult for individuals to keep pace with the daily deluge of messages they receive in their inboxes. There is a creeping feeling that we are no longer masters of technology but rather its servants, and that electronic communications are akin to a Frankenstein monster: out of control and therefore impossible to keep in check.
Yet individuals are not the only victims of the relentless advance of modern communication technology. Organisations themselves are slowly, but surely, suffocating from e-mail overload. There is a growing consensus in the business world that e-mails are actually damaging productivity, as well as stifling creativity and strategic thinking. Big blue-chip companies such as IBM, Vodafone, Daimler and Dyson have all set down parameters regarding e-mail/IT usage so as to off-set the deleterious impact of electronic communications on their employees’ time and energy. Although there is little sign of any comparable initiative emanating from the MoD, one element of the UK’s armed forces has bucked the current trend and implemented an enlightened policy regarding electronic communications.
3PARA Battle Group’s command team has taken the unprecedented step of enforcing a daily blanket ban on all e-mails and the use of electronic equipment between 1730 and 0830 hours.It is unclear how and why this initiative came about, but the Paras have surely got the right idea. In the absence of any real debate on the pros and cons of e-mail usage within the UK military, The Parachute Regiment has characteristically taken the initiative and acted as a pathfinder for others who share their concerns regarding the negative impact of electronic communications on combat readiness and military efficiency.
Placing the e-mail pandemic in its wider military context, the Paras’ prophylactic remedy is a wise move, for the ubiquity of electronic communications poses an existential threat to the ‘fighting power’ of any military organisation, the Royal Marines included. As defined in British Military Doctrine, the fighting power of the UK’s armed forces consists of three main components: the ‘physical’, the ‘conceptual’ and the ‘moral’.
The ‘physical’ component ‘furnishes the means to fight i.e. manpower, equipment, logistics, training and readiness’; the conceptual component embraces the ‘thought processes behind military actions that involve the principles of war, doctrine and development of military forces and equipment for the future’; while the moral component, which addresses the ability to get soldiers to fight, encompasses four fundamental elements: ‘the motivation to achieve the task in hand; effective leadership from those placed in authority; adequate and appropriate welfare provision; and sound management of all personnel and resources’.
Unsurprisingly, each component is vulnerable to the insidious effects of an IT/e-mail dependency culture, and should give those with responsibility for the fighting power of their particular branch of the armed forces cause for concern. Time devoted to reading and responding to countless e-mails means leaders of all ranks have less and less time in which to physically exercise, train and bond with their men, sharpen their personal marksmanship, and practise their specialised skill-sets in the field. As a consequence, a generation of desk-bound leaders, who are simply too busy to excel or even be safe, is evolving. Unsurprisingly, this technology-driven mutation has serious ramifications for leadership, combat readiness and military efficiency, the overriding priorities of any first-class military organisation.
The conceptual component is perhaps most at risk from inattention caused by an over-focus on e-mails in particular, and staff work in general. Ironically, much has been written on revolutions in military communications throughout the ages. In particular, the military historians Martin van Creveld and John Keegan, respective authors of the seminal works, Command in Warand The Mask of Command, both identified a direct correlation between the invention and subsequent employment of 19thCentury industrial technologies, such as the telegraph and telephone, and the spawning of vast networks of general staff officers, which reached unparalleled levels during the First World War.
The widespread use of the telephone during the 1914-18 war by the general staffs of all armies led to the serious charge of ‘chateaux generalship’ which produced a yawning gulf between GHQs and frontline troops. Moreover, the ever-increasing speed of communications facilitated by the telegraph and telephone created a volume of information/intelligence that far exceeded ‘the capacity of any one man to collect and digest it’.The resultant blizzard of information, or ‘noise’, generated by these industrial technologies made it increasingly difficult for leaders to discern the big picture, a state of affairs with parallels to today.
Yet it would appear that the lessons of history concerning the liberal use of unchecked technology have been overlooked, or simply ignored. To date, little ink has been spilled by military commentators on the insidious nature of emails and their deleterious impact on the fighting power of the UK’s armed forces. It may be an inconvenient truth, but in the early 21stCentury e-mails have turned leaders of all ranks into mini staff officers, who have minimum time for sustained and profound thought regarding their trade, namely the profession of arms.
E-mails oblige those in whom authority and responsibility have been vested to think and act tactically. This in turn breeds short-termism which is inimical to combat readiness and military efficiency. Despite an increasing appetite within the Corps to reform and enhance the Officer Career Development programme and Professional Military Education syllabus, this desire is in inverse proportion to the time available in which to enact such changes.
Perhaps most concerning of all, however, is the ease with which difficult decisions or responsibilities can be passed-on via e-mail. It is all too easy for an individual to pass on problems by a mere press of the send icon thereby abdicating ownership of the difficulty in question. Worryingly, this can engender an organisational culture of ‘pass the buck’ which undermines trust, collegiality and morale. Furthermore, e-mails have conditioned people to expect and therefore require an instant response to their queries. This instant gratification has sadly negated the use of the telephone and the face-to-face meeting, both of which generally save time and reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.
Just as susceptible to the negative effects of e-mails is the moral component of the Corps’ fighting power, and specifically the areas of fighting spirit, welfare provision and the sound management of all personnel. Sufficient concern has been voiced over the loosening of theglue that binds together military personnel. In the past, Marines would sit around in their ‘grots’ talking, debating and generally bonding. Today, many seek privacy and solitude via their smart phones or laptops. This increasing insularity also applies to officers who in the past regularly frequented their unit bar, a focal point for discussion and debate over a few ‘wets’. Again, the need to attend to e-mails and staff work has dislocated this historical ‘norm’, precluding, inter alia, the cross-pollination of ideas and initiatives. It also spells a growing disconnect between commanders and those they serve alongside.
Over-exposure to electronic communications and IT also leads to health problems. Short-sightedness, loss of short-term memory, mental fatigue and stress have all been identified as by-products of too much screen-time. The latter point is of particular significance, for smart phones and laptops have obliterated the traditional boundaries between work and home. Leaders who take work home are never in a position to switch-off therefore jeopardizing the key work-life balance essential to domestic harmony. The long periods of separation from family members necessitated by the Corps’ global commitments are exacerbated still further by the invasive nature of modern communications, which distract and govern military leaders when they do eventually return home.
Unfortunately, e-mails will remain the predominant form of official communication for the foreseeable future. Consequently, those currently serving, and therefore shouldering this burden, may wish to observe the following advice regarding time management and the most efficacious methods of managing their inboxes:
- Prioritise tasks (Eisenhower Matrix), understand what does and doesn’t truly have to be completed now/today.
- Understand your deadlines and allocate time ahead to achieve those tasks before the deadlines (e.g. appraisal reports, exercise planning, staff work).
- Take stock each week and plan the week ahead (maybe for an hour each Friday).
- Plan time in your day for at least 40 mins of exercise.
- Plan time in your day for at least 40 mins of reading, thinking or learning (there is nothing wrong with using working time for Continuous Professional Development).
- Plan your travel time to exploit it for thinking, listening (e.g. podcasts) or talking.
- Plan to close your Outlook down for half the day and don’t send emails after normal working hours (if you do, set up a delayed delivery).
- Set up an auto-forward rule in Outlook for all ‘CC…’ emails to go into a ‘CC’d Emails’ folder.
- Only have 4 folders in your Inbox (Archive, CC’d Emails, Reading and To Do) so don’t spend hours filing emails by project or sender (use the Search function to find emails).
- Learn to use the tools available to their full extent (MODnet, JPA/OBIEE, JAMES) and provide feedback/complain to make them better if they are hard to use).
With respect to e-mail usage as a whole, it must be contended that the UK’s armed forces have sleep-walked down this dystopian road long enough and now must snap-out of their slumber before the ‘physical’, ‘conceptual’ and ‘moral’ components of its collective fighting power are irreparably impaired. If not, the Queen’s enemies, who are deliberately eschewing IT dependency, will have largely succeeded in shaping the battlespace of tomorrow’s conflict before the first round is even fired.
In conclusion, if the Royal Marines themselves are to remain combat ready, militarily effective and generally fit for purpose in the 21stCentury, then a mature, honest and clear-eyed debate must now take place over the negative impact of electronic communications. If the Commandant-General and the Royal Marines Board are truly sincere in their collective determination to transport the Corps back to its ‘Commando roots’ by means of the Future Commando Force concept, then they must recognise that one of the wartime Commandos’ secrets to success was their resolute rejection of red-tape and paperwork.Unencumbered by such bureaucratic matters, they were consequently free to actively pursue the philosophy, ‘train hard, fight easy’, a cornerstone of the Commando ethos.
At the end of the day, men really do not become Commandos in order to transact countless email exchanges. With manning and retention problems currently at the forefront of senior minds, a concerted effort on the part of CGRM to reduce the sheer volume of e-mails circulated throughout the Corps would constitute a significant first step in the curtailment of excessive and stifling staff work, the bête noireof the FCF’s freewheeling forefathers. In the absence of urgent remedial work in this arena, creativity, innovation and initiative within Commando units will be stymied, thereby gravely weakening the ‘fighting power’ of the FCF.
Robin Pagnamenta, ‘It’s time we killed off email’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2018.
Private conversation with a Royal Marines officer formerly attached to 3 PARA Battle Group.
Chapter 3, Fighting Power’, Land Operations, Land Warfare Development Centre, Army Doctrine Publication, AC 71940, 2017, pp. 3-1-3-16.
Chapter 2: ‘The Doctrinal Background’, Section 2, ‘The Concept of Fighting Power’, The Application of Force: An Introduction to British Army Doctrine and to the Conduct of Military Operations, Army Code No 71622, 1998, pp. 2-4-2-6.
See John Keegan, The Mask of Command, (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1987), passimand Martin van Creveld, Command in War, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 103-109.
 John Keegan, The Mask of Command, (London: Jonathan Cape, Ltd, 1987), p. 326.
Hilary St George Saunders, The Green Beret: The Story of the Commandos, 1940-1945, (London: Michael Joseph Ltd, 1950), p. 29. See also Brigadier John Durnford-Slater, Commando, (London: William Kimber & Co Ltd, 1953), passim.
 James Dunning, It Had to be Tough: The Origins and Training of the Commandos in World War II, (London: Frontline Books, 2012), p. xiii.