Tom Cochran describes his office’s email overload problem in a Harvard Business Review blog post:

My job description does not include managing email flow. Yours probably doesn’t, either. But it’s increasingly a big part of the work we do. In fact, in a single week last fall, I received 511 emails and sent 284. Almost 160 emails a day is ridiculous. Even if I was efficient and processed each email in 30 seconds, it would still take almost an hour and a half.

The really striking conclusion, though, is in his estimate of the real cost of e-mail:

By calculating average typing speed, reading speed, response rate, volume of email, average salary, and total employees, we were looking at a seven-figure price tag to quantify our email pollution. A “free and frictionless” method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet. Each individual email ate up 95 cents of labor costs.

In other words, while the cost of sending an email is trivially small, the often-unnecessary work that emails generate (thanks to the “FYI culture that digitally drowns most executives,” Cochran was cc:ed on 172 messages in one week) is actually substantial.

This shouldn’t be a real surprise. Last year, McKinsey produced a report that estimated that 28% “of the average worker’s day is spent answering and reading emails.” That works out to about two hours a day. If many of those messages are actually not that important– if most are cc:, one-sentence replies that form part of an endless chain of back-and-forth, and spam– then that’s a nontrivial hit on personal and group productivity.

Unfortunately in my view, there’s a tendency to believe that the solution to the email problem is… more technology. McKinsey estimates that “time spent on email can be cut by 25%-30% by introducing social networking communications into a business,” while Cochran sees the solution in the one department of his company that had lower email usage:

They had an open and egalitarian office, with no individual offices. Every screen had an array of windows open — Skype, GChat, Campfire, Dropbox, Yammer, and Google Docs — the right technology for the right situation. And, the team was staffed with digitally savvy employees, most of whom have lived half of their lives plugged into the Internet.

There are two pitfalls with this approach. First, there’s nothing to stop these other tools from becoming channels for bad behavior, just as happened with email. What he’s describing is a cultural problem rather than a technological one.

Second, Cochran’s line about “the right technology for the right situation” obscures something really complicated: that the rightness of the “right technology” is not self-evident.

I’ve been in offices where some people preferred email because it left a paper trail, others wanted to use chat, others wanted to use chat but insisted that IRC was awesome while IM totally sucked, someone else loved Skype, and the boss wanted everyone to communicate through Salesforce.

More often than not, I suspect, proliferation turns technology choice into a political struggle, and adoption depends as much on who yells loudest or holds out longest as it does on any consensus about what the “right technology” is.