An Information Worker’s View of Microsoft Office Evolution

Jeff Raikes: (c) Microsoft February 2005

by Jeff Raikes

One thing that excites me about watching the evolution of Microsoft Office 2003 and its adoption over the past 15 months is how flexible and accessible the tools have become.

Applies to
Microsoft Office 2003
Microsoft Outlook 2003

I see evidence of this as I meet with customers and we talk about a broad range of issues — ranging from Microsoft’s collaboration strategy and the evolution of information work to questions about how we decide which applications to invest in and how those decisions affect our users.

This latter topic is particularly interesting to discuss because I have the good fortune of leading a business in which I am also a user of the tools we build. It’s helpful for me to ponder these considerations as I think about higher-level strategy and business-value discussions around our collaboration platform, real time communications vision and Microsoft Office as a platform because, in the end, the users have to use and find value in the products if they are to drive value for the business.

In that spirit, I’d like to share with the Office Online Community some of my thoughts on how today’s workplace is evolving and how software is evolving to meet the needs of today’s users. This column will be the first of a series that I hope will be of interest to you. One of the first items I’d like to discuss is the changes taking place with e-mail — an activity that many of us can relate to — and how today’s information worker tools make it easier for our users, and me, to deal with the changing workplace.

Faster communication

Obviously, e-mail is nothing new: People have been using it for many years as a powerful form of communication. Its ability to revolutionize business communications really began to hit home for me during a business trip to Brazil around 1998, when I was involved in finalizing a major sales agreement with a large corporation. As the customer posed challenging questions to me during the course of the day, I took notes and packaged them into e-mails that I sent to people at Microsoft’s campus from my hotel room that night. My colleagues could then work on dealing with the customer’s issues and send back answers before I returned to customer meetings the next day. This ability to communicate nimbly from Brazil to Redmond and back gave me the knowledge I needed to help me close the deal and helped me be more responsive to the customer.

Because these types of e-mail activities are not new, people sometimes do not see how much e-mail has changed over the years. Indeed, the ability to use e-mail for communication instead of phone or fax is so powerful that its use has become almost overwhelming. While I am now more in the loop and more effective because of e-mail, there are some challenges that come with working in a more connected society and an information economy that has largely become reliant on e-mail as a mission-critical application.

E-mail overload?

The industry e-mail surge

  • The average information worker spends more than 90 minutes per day — roughly 20 percent of their work time — dealing with e-mail. (Information Worker Productivity Institute Research)
  • On average, an office worker in the U.S. sends and receives as many as 200 e-mail messages each day.
  • The size of business e-mail volumes sent annually worldwide exceeded 1 exabyte (note: 1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes) for the first time in 2003, an increase of 41% from 2002. (IDC, August 2004)
  • The number of person-to-person e-mails sent annually worldwide is estimated to have been 7.8 trillion in 2004 and projected to reach 10.4 trillion in 2008. (IDC, August 2004)
  • IDC forecasts a daily volume of 12 billion spam messages, 13 billion person-to-person e-mails and 6 billion e-mail alerts and notifications sent in North America in 2005. (IDC, August 2004)
  • The surge in spam poses a growing threat to productivity, estimating that spam represented 38% of all e-mail, including both external and internal messages, sent on an average day in North America in 2004, up from 24% in 2002. (IDC, August 2004) Source: "Worldwide E-mail Usage 2004-2008 Forecast: Spam Today, Other Content Tomorrow" (IDC # 31782, Aug 2004)

Microsoft e-mail statistics (Source: Microsoft IT)

  • Microsoft receives about 10 million e-mails per day via the Internet; 85 to 90 percent is filtered out as spam.
  • Internally, 2-3 million messages per day are sent between employees at Microsoft.
  • 50,000 unique users per month, or 63 percent of all users with e-mail accounts, use Information Rights Management (IRM) technology in Microsoft Office 2003 to rights-protect their e-mails and attachments.
  • 56,000 unique users per month, or 70 percent of all users with e-mail accounts, use Outlook Web Access to access their e-mail remotely using just a Web browser.
  • 26,000 unique users per month, or 32 percent of all users with e-mail accounts, check their e-mail with Outlook without relying on a virtual private network (RPC/HTTP).

Increased information flow

I think the biggest change in e-mail over the last five to 10 years, and one that many others should be able to appreciate, is that I now get so much more e-mail than I used to — several hundred in a typical day, most of which require some level of attention. Some of our internal research shows that the average worker is spending up to two hours a day just dealing with e-mail. Judging from the customer case studies I have seen from our customers and our own research, issues related to e-mail information management, prioritization and access all rank high on many users’ lists of reasons why yesterday’s information worker tools are not good enough for today’s needs.

Outlook flags: (c) Microsoft

One of the challenges I faced with the older Office tools lay in quickly scanning the increased volume of e-mail and prioritizing it. I find that between the new layout in today’s tools — specifically the reading pane — and the ability to flag items in different ways based on the action I should take, I am able to much more rapidly sort the items that need immediate attention from the ones that can wait. Everyone has their own way of using the flags, but for me, orange flags denote work-related, high-priority, external issues - usually from a customer or partner. Red flags are used for internal issues that require immediate attention. I use purple flags for personal e-mails that require my attention as soon as possible.

Another notable change is in the way people rely on e-mail as a kind of file system on their computer. The methods involved tend to be different for different people. For instance, I find myself to be more of a “filer” than a “piler.” “Filers” like to employ an extensive hierarchy of folders to organize their e-mail, while “pilers” prefer to have few folders and perhaps just leave most of their e-mail in their inbox. Fortunately, Microsoft Office 2003 tools fit multiple work styles.

Whichever style you have, finding a particular e-mail that you know is somewhere in your mail folder can sometimes be frustrating. Some studies suggest people spend up to 30 percent of their time looking for information. Using new tools like the ability to sort by conversation instead of just sorting by subject is very helpful for people who leave everything in one folder, since this method allows them to track the conversation threads and replies. “Pilers” often will use the Unread Mail search folder to locate all of their unread e-mail.

My own Microsoft Outlook folders get a lot of attention, and I try to keep my inbox relatively clean. The folder system I use for e-mail is familiar and comfortable, but it is not always easy to file e-mails when they might be related to a few different topics. The new search folders have helped solve this issue. I have roughly 30 search folders, most of which I use to locate e-mail to and from my direct reports and other key people, and which span multiple folders within my Outlook file.

Always needing access

Because it has become such a central part of my work communication, access to e-mail is now a requirement no matter where I may be. People expect to be able to pass information to me using e-mail, and when I cannot get to it, the fallout is almost worse than not having e-mail at all due to the expectations it has created. Today, even though the volume of information and the size of messages have both increased, it is a lot faster to get my messages when on the road than it used to be. Whereas anyone who has tried to download a day’s worth of e-mails over a dial-up connection knows the headaches this slow method could cause in the past, huge advancement behind the scenes in how Outlook communicates with Microsoft Exchange have vastly improved the speed and reliability of mobile e-mail access and made it a lot easier to work offline, for example, when traveling on a plane.

When computers are not available, I find my Web-enabled phone or handheld personal digital assistant device works well in their place. When I recently traveled to Thailand, I was able to exchange e-mails with people in Redmond while traveling in cabs between visits with customers, partners and our local business leads. It allowed me to clarify information while on the road and be that much better prepared for my meetings.

Controlling a slippery communication medium

Because so much communication goes through e-mail these days, I find people need to be a lot more careful about what they send. How many people have had an e-mail they sent end up on a distribution list or forwarded to people whom you might not have wanted to expose to the information? Many of my e-mails deal with proprietary, strategic or otherwise sensitive topics, and I do not necessarily want them forwarded elsewhere. Now I am able to rights-protect my documents in ways that prevent people from forwarding them or otherwise distributing them outside the company. Rights protection helps me safeguard anything that has to do with business strategy or the direction Microsoft is taking. It also allows me to restrict sensitive internal topics, such as organizational changes, to the recipients of the e-mail.

Is it foolproof? No - someone could always re-type the information into another document or pass it along in a phone call. However, these rights protection tools help prevent unintended leaks, and the tools are extremely easy to use. It is a great way to share information easily while still exercising some control over how broadly the e-mail content can travel.

Ways to interact in Outlook: (c) Microsoft

Convergence of communication tools and media

Another area that is propelling our products is the convergence of how people are using different tools and integrated communications. Today, I can move communicating with e-mail to a real-time interaction without even having to leave Outlook. If I see something that concerns me, I can tell if the sender is online through what we call “presence” - an icon next to the sender’s name that tells me whether someone is online or not and whether the person can be reached. With one click, I can send that person an instant message whether he or she is on my “buddy” list or not and initiate a more real-time conversation to answer questions quickly. That same click can start a virtual meeting or place a call to the person as well. This integration points toward another trend I see happening with the tools that involves unified communications, which is a topic that I plan to explore in a future column.

How information worker tools save time

The changes taking place with e-mail comprise just one aspect of how I think about the evolution of information worker tools. E-mail is arguably very information-worker centric, but it also carries larger consequences for organizations.

Some have asked how I would quantify the benefits of improved e-mail tools. To me, this type of measurement would really depend on where e-mail fits into your daily usage. One telecom customer in Italy points to savings of more than (US)$12 million per year for 10,000 employees as a result of improved productivity using e-mail, while another organization in the U.S. lending industry points to better customer responsiveness and higher availability in branch offices. Personally, I measure the benefits in a couple of different ways. The most basic criterion is the hour or more of time I save each day because of what the tools offer. That hour is valuable in itself, but I also look at the information I would never get to read or the customers to whom I would fail to respond if the e-mail tools did not help me take control of the increased information flow in this new information-based economy.

I hope these examples give you some idea of how the changing workplace drives the changes in our applications, and how that in turn affects how I work as an information worker. While I have outlined some of the ways I am working differently, I am by no means the expert on “tips and tricks” with Outlook. There are plenty of resources here on Office Online to help you (see the sidebars in this column provided by the experts).

I hope you found these personal insights helpful, and I look forward to receiving your feedback. Feel free to let me know what you think about this column as well as any questions you might have - and definitely let me know how I can make this column more useful for you. Thanks!

About the author

Jeff Raikes is group vice president of the Information Worker Business at Microsoft Corp. As a member of the company's Senior Leadership Team along with Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer and Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, Raikes shares responsibility for developing and guiding Microsoft's core business strategy.

Applies to:
Outlook 2003