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Inbox 101: Army experts offer email guidance

Inbox bursting at the seams? Trying to decipher an message chain that goes back so far you’ve forgotten the original message? Enough names on the "reply-all" line to staff a battalion? 

While some recent military email-related concerns have made headlines, most just cause headaches or slow down servers. For instance, a popular thread on the social-media site Reddit last month tracked the progress of a noncommissioned officer's errant personal message that reportedly spread across the Army via a large distribution list that had nothing to do with the email's contents.

An Army public affairs official couldn't confirm the email's authenticity, but the service is no stranger to such stumbles, according to officials with the Army Knowledge Management Proponent Office. That agency, part of the Combined Arms Center, is charged with educating the force on proper email protocol, among other information-management duties.

1. End overcrowding. Before sending or forwarding along a message, consider whether email is the proper platform, Fletcher advised, offering an example: "An email is sent out from the senior staff about some postwide function. That will go to a [distribution] list. The next person in line will say, 'Hey, I don't know if you got this, don't want to double-tap you, but I'm going to send it to you anyways.' So they forward it to you. ... Folks are continuously forwarding emails. It'll bring a server to its knees."

"I think we're using email for the wrong purposes," he continued. "Messages like that should be posted either to a public website ... or, something internal, posted to a SharePoint portal message board or whatever the internal collaboration tool for that organization is."

Another space-saver: Whenever possible, send links to documents available online, instead of attaching files.

2. "Reply-all"? Really? The reply-all function may serve to keep your command chain informed, but it can also spread information far beyond its intended audience, Fletcher said.

"It's hard to understand the reasoning behind why people would reply all, without any thought or effort into what that actually means," he said. "That message, that information becomes public across a huge spectrum as soon as they hit reply-all."

Such forwarding becomes even more of a concern when distribution lists are involved, Koskey added, as users may not know the list's entire roster.

3. Use the tools. Koskey said he's surprised how many emails are sent without subjects, even though most email software will prompt a user to include one before shipping the message. Most programs also have spelling and grammar checks, which often go unused or ignored.

"We're a professional Army, you're a professional soldier — the expectation is that you write like a professional," Fletcher said.

4. Clean up your mess. When you do hit the wrong button, don't panic — and don't immediately clog up your unit's inboxes with cut-and-paste apology notes.

"Within [Microsoft] Outlook, at least, there is a recall button, and so if they do have that errant misfire, and can react to it quick enough, oftentimes they can recall that message before anybody sees it," Fletcher said. "You know the ones that you have recall failure against, and those are the folks you start making phone calls and apologizing, not sending those mass emails saying, 'Sorry, I'm such an idiot.' "

5. Remedial emailing. Spell-check doesn't solve everything: Koskey said soldiers should remember to check their messages for tone, too.

"What you may think is joking around or clear is not always taken that way on the other end," he said — a problem magnified when a message gets forwarded outside of its original audience.

And watch your caps lock: Some soldiers and Army civilians are still sending all-caps messages, the experts said, and others might as well be — overloading their emails with acronyms that may not be understood across the service.

"Just because a specific acronym might be very well-known in your organization, if you know this email is going to work its way through the wickets, through higher and higher levels of command, make sure you spell those acronyms out, so folks can ... focus on the content instead of spending time searching online to find out what that acronym actually means," Fletcher said.

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