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Interview: Ana Neves

Another issue on our series of interviews with people that embody the very spirit Mailcube strives to achieve: inventiveness and out-of-the-box thinking with productivity and quality of life in mind.

Ana Neves is an IT engineer that has dedicated her life to digital interaction and the tools we use for it. As one of Portugal’s leading web citizenship enthusiasts, she has promoted countless seminar projects (check her platform KMOL for details). In 2001 she founded Knowman, a consulting firm that specializes in knowledge management.

Mailcube: How did your career in corporate consulting begin? Is it something that’s always motivated you, or was there one specific moment when it all started to make sense?

Ana Neves: I’ve always liked listening to other people. And helping out. In the year before I graduated, I fell in love with organizations, with the way people worked and learned together – or didn’t. So when I got my degree, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: listen to the people that wanted to do more for their organizations, and do it better. Knowledge management, collaboration best practices and internal communication were just a few means that presented themselves.

MC: Knowman defines Knowledge Management as its main area of action. But what precisely is Knowledge Management?

AN: At Knowman we see Knowledge Management as a field that helps organizations reach their goals through better use of knowledge and information. By working with the teams, the structure and the organizational processes, we improve the way knowledge and information navigate and reach the organization – but also the way they’re collected and the timing of their use.

MC: Could you give us an example?

AN: Take a company that is trying to break out into the international market. In order to do so, they need knowledge about the markets they’re trying to enter. In order to get that, they must hire people already at those countries. Then, they must ensure that the knowledge of the rest of the team is made available to those new hires. This ensures that the company’s character remains intact. Throughout all this, it’s important to put in place a circuit for daily activity information that crosses all the offices. This daily activity information is paramount for reviewing the systems in place, and can potentially induce revisions to those processes.

MC: The root of Knowman’s name is “Knowledge Management” – but is phonetically similar to “no man”. Was this on purpose?

AN: (laughter) You can’t imagine the number of times we get asked about that. No, it wasn’t intentional. As I always have to say: I promise we have no agenda against men!

MC: We couldn’t help but ask! As part of your strategic guidance, you counsel your clients on the use and choice of organizational tools. Do you usually also give out counsel when it comes to email?

AN: We do counsel our clients on the use of email, but I dislike models and I am not particularly fond of one-size-fits-all recipes. Each organization is different. I can say that, ideally, any organization could work towards reducing the volume of internal email, but even then some organizations simply cannot afford to do that. We must adapt our every counsel to the realities of the organization we’re working with.

MC: Being in close contact with corporate culture, what problems and mistakes do you usually find in their relationship with email?

AN: Oh, dear. Where to begin? Putting it simply, we could say that the problem with email is volume. However, the amount of messages we send and receive is cause and consequence of other issues. Issues such as the nonexistence of authorized alternate means of communication, or at least an alternate means that can also support the sending of files and information. Issues such as a culture of mistrust – when emails are sent just to make sure a situation is put in writing to serve as proof if need be, or when the boss is added as CC just so the employee can have plausible deniability about having made a decision on their own. And there’s always the good old bad practices – things like sending out emails for 50 people, and then enjoying many replies sent to all of them. I could list things like these all day.

MC: Do you believe a solution could be to end email entirely?

AN: Knowman doesn’t believe it to be possible, or even necessary, to do away with email. However, we do believe that a lot of thinking needs to be done about how we use it. We even conceived a workshop with the renowned consultant Luis Suarez wherein we proposed a solution that could reduce the volume of their email by 80% in just five weeks.

MC: On a personal level, what type of use do you make of email? Are there any routines you put in place to improve your productivity?

AN: There’s a portuguese saying that goes something like this: “you’ll always find a wooden ladle at a blacksmith’s house”. That means that even in Knowman we slip up and don’t practice what we preach. But there’s a reason for that. Most of our emails are exchanged with people outside Knowman: clients, providers, people reaching out to us, and so on. Often they’re self-contained events or span a short window of time. That means there’s no sense in “bringing them over” to our side, to the platforms we use to communicate internally, to collaborate and to document the work being done.

As for me personally, I can’t say I have many specific routines. The two golden rules I have are to avoid adding too many people on CC, and to write short and concise emails. I use lists often because they’re a visual aid for large packets of information, and bold words and sentences I want to stress. In the case of the rare long email I do have to send, I divide it into smaller parts and include an index at the beginning of the message. My time is valuable, but not more than the person on the other side.