Do you hear the cry of surrender of internal company email? If you do, well, thank goodness!
Do businesses need email? Allow me to rephrase: Would companies be better off without internal company email?
Let's be perfectly clear about the details of this proposition. First, "internal" email means email communication between employees of the same organization. It has nothing to do with external email, or messages sent and received between organizations. That's not going anywhere. Second, "better off" means more productive, efficient, happier employees, and better business practices. Third, no one is suggesting getting rid of electronic communication. Rather, the idea is to replace internal email as we know it with tools that do the job better, and these other tools likely resemble apps and programs you already use. Are you in? I am.
Whose Idea Was This in the First Place?
Thierry Breton, CEO and chair of Atos Origin, a large information technology services company, thinks the answer is a clear yes. Yes, companies would be better off without internal email. He put his money where his mouth is back in February when he outlined his plan to eradicate company email within the next three years.
"The volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business. … [E]mail is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business," Breton said in the announcement.
The idea sparked as much controversy as agreement, but Breton hasn't relented. In a more recent interview with the BBC, Breton defended his position and the claim that emails between Atos employees will vanish in three years.
For those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time deleting unnecessary email, Thierry makes a convincing argument.
What's the Matter With Email?
Frankly, email is wasteful. Sure, it doesn't require chopping down trees like paper mail, but it creates a mess of data that often winds up in the hands of people who don't need it. Those recipients waste their time reading messages just in case they do pertain to them, or more likely, deleting emails in a never-ending struggle to clear their inbox of irrelevant clutter. In both cases, the clock is ticking and the meter is running.
And who doesn't view internal email as a burden? Entire treatises have been written about managing email, staying on top of email, not letting email get the better of you, email etiquette, mastering the art of kapalbhati to cleanse your body and mind of the stress caused by too much email.
"Managers spend between 5 and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails," Breton has said. "They are already using social media networking more than search, and spend 25 percent of their time searching for information."
For some, email is easy. Words flow quickly. You have a paper trail of conversations, all time and date stamped. It allows you to deal with work at your own pace, prioritizing responses as you see fit. For others, the time spent composing an email alone can be crippling. Context and tone are lost. Large attachments slow down the entire program—all this to communicate with people who are sometimes sitting literally a few feet away.
What is email, anyway? Email programs are hardly used just for electronic mail anymore. Years ago, the purpose an email program was to enable us to communicate cheaply with others when the phone just wouldn't do, like across time zones or when documentation of the correspondence was necessary. And unlike early chat programs, it didn't matter if you used Lotus Notes and the recipient had AOL Mail. It worked across platforms. As more and more features have been added—like the ability to send attachments (life changing!), address books, scheduling and reminder functions, public calendars, and to-do lists—it's a wonder we still call it "email" at all, although I suppose you could say the same for my pocket PC, which everyone refers to as a "phone."
Again, for outside communication, email can't be beat. It continues to be a universal problem-solver for certain kinds of communication. However, based on what organizations need to do internally, email is already outdated. We already have better tools for the tasks we need to do, even if we need to adjust them to fit business appropriately.
There's no reason we can't get the benefits of email with a tool or many tools other than email. And that's what Breton put at the heart of his plan at Atos.
Other Tools Do it Better
Instant messaging (or text chat) programs, such as AIM or ICQ for example, are already commonly used in plenty of organizations for immediate communication. Social networks, whether open or proprietary, also help people talk to one another and converse either in real time or asynchronously. Social networks, such as Salesforce.com's Chatter or Yammer, are probably the closest contender for internal email replacement, because they typically include many ways to communicate all wrapped into one package: text chat, video chat, posting, commenting, and email-like messages, too. Some project management tools—think Basecamp—already offer a lot of this functionality plus a lot more, like calendaring and to-do lists, although it was built with project management in mind and could stand a lot of tweaking and tinkering to refit it as more of an all-purpose communication tool.
Perhaps the biggest difference between old-fashioned email and communication that happens on social networks and project management software is the latter supports optional communication. When you're included on a non-pertinent email thread and simply don't have the time to participate, it's very difficult to opt out. I once replied to a group of my friends on email, tongue in cheek mind you, with "UNSUBSCRIBE" in the subject line; that seriously backfired. But that's the joke, isn't it? You can't excuse yourself from an email thread, at least not without repercussions. Even your co-workers who politely ask to be removed from the CC line usually rub someone the wrong way. But other kinds of communication are set up for opt-in discussion. Wikis and discussion boards used to provide this, but they are used less and less. Wikis are out and social networks are in.
Social Networking's Influence
Social networks do a few things radically differently than traditional business tools, and while I'm not advocating using them out of the box in this way, they offer plenty of concepts to take away.
Status. One thing businesses could adopt from social networks is the idea of employees or teams telling one another what they are working on at the moment. I can't count the number of times my work day would have been completely reprioritized had I known the IT team or my boss was ignoring my emails because they were fighting some other huge fire. Imagine if employees could indicate that they were down to their low-priority items and are available to work on more pressing problems if anyone else needs a hand.
Word count. Twitter directly limits how much you can say in one shot. Other social networks encourage brevity by design. Think of the window you're given to compose a status update on Facebook versus the size of the window in which you can compose an email. Less is not always more, but when you don't want to read a lengthy response, wouldn't it be nice to choose the tool that encourages the other person to write back in brief?
Discussion. Have you ever been on a very long and complex email thread and feel there is more to be said, but clam up because everyone on the chain is clearly tired and wants to put the matter to rest? Threaded commenting doesn't wear out as fast, and it gets even better when people can vote up comments so that the most relevant ones hang in view.
Inter-departmental communication. I've worked in many offices where people did not talk to each other purely because they were in different departments—and communication between them would have benefited the organization and company culture immensely. Social networks let public information be truly public (at least to those in the network) so other people can explore it. When used appropriately, it can foster cross-disciplinary (or inter-departmental) knowledge sharing, which can be hugely valuable. LinkedIn and Twitter are two examples of places where people typically field information from their larger network, looking for information or experts who aren't in their immediate work circle.
Those are just a few examples, but certainly, there are many, many more. Feel free to add your ideas in the comments to this article.
So, get rid of internal company email? I'm already sold. The only question left for me is whether we'll continue to call it "email" or whether we'll all be beholden to the catch phrase "social networking" while it's still hot.
Copyright © 2010 Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.
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