Send email a pink slip, or just a “message”?

There’s been a lot of discussion of late since the revelation that European tech leader Atos took the bold – and some may say, ‘reckless’ – step to ban internal email.

Within my small quadrant of the Twitterverse, opinions are far-flung, wide, ranging, and numerous. I’d venture to say that the amount of discussion is second only to the recent “why are L&D leaders ignoring research on learning styles” exchanges and reposts.

After reading and reflecting upon some well-articulated comments from Stephen White, Clive Shepherd and Mark Britz, I wanted to think more about this issue. Mark Britz felt that the Atos email ban was “half-baked” (via Twitter), and Clive Shepherd went so far as to outline alternate approaches via the way he manages email traffic through folders, rules, etc. Stephen was more on the fence, suggesting that the approach was potentially media grandstanding (my words), but could change the work culture. The nice thing about all these exchanges is that (I hope) Mark and Clive and I can agree to disagree and keep some of the dialogue going. So, with that in mind, I offer my counterpoint to their arguments that Altos was wrong to take this drastic step, but – as always – it comes with a bit of a twist.

It’s not news to anyone that knowledge workers spend a significant amount of time managing “unwanted communication”. For example…

For some, it could be argued, a high volume of email is perceived as a high level of productivity and “communication” with colleagues, subordinates, and superiors. Of course, the flip side of that conversation is that it becomes very easy to “manage by email” or even send communications to people via email that you might never say in person. It’s also the ultimate character assassination tool or the “CYA” tool. The other challenge we face is access to key operational information. We’re increasingly reliant on external resources/information to help us do our jobs, as opposed to keeping it all in our heads. To wit:

CHart from Robert Kelley (CMU) showing knowledge worker response to questions about the location of knowledge required for day-to-day work.

Slide from Harold Jarche. Used with permission.

So, is the tool the problem? Of course not. As with anything else, its how we choose to employ it; and how we manage it, but it does seem to have taken a life of its own and is now considered to be “mission critical” by many organizations. However, it seems germane to ask, “at what cost?” T+D Magazine had a podcast (May 2010) that projected a requirement for “millenials” to actually learn face-to-face networking skills because they’ve been (mostly) able to “network” through technology and with all the “safety” barriers those mechanisms imply. Surely the “email culture” bears some culpability for that.

At my last employer – a significantly smaller organization, and one largely virtual – email was getting significantly out of hand; Blackberries buzzing incessantly, etc.. It was driving my CEO nuts with almost ceaseless Cc’s and BCc’s, etc. He was also someone who hated a cluttered, over-full inbox. So, he proposed a short-term experiment. We would leverage other tools for our day-to-day communications, particularly when we weren’t all together at the office and we would cap internal emails at 2 per day. Of course, client-directed emails would not be bound by this restriction.

A funny thing happened….we started talking to one another.

While that’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, there were a few other spill-overs from this effort: We made better use of some of the other tools at our disposal for communication, like our phones, Skype, etc., but we also started doing some really critical thinking about whether or not we “needed” to send this email, and that included emails to clients. The way in which we gathered and filtered our information became more focused and effective.

So is it possible that we could have banned email altogether? Sure, but I suspect that the resistance would have been vocal and strident. The boss gave us a way to continue to making use of a familiar tool, but asked us to be “smarter” about how we used it.

Clive shares his methods and rationale by saying:

There are also practical advantages to asynchronous media, not least the fact that you get to keep a record of the communication. I have 100s of mailbox folders in my email application and these provide an absolutely invaluable way for me to stay organised and cut down on hard copies. If I worked within a large organisation and it had a really great online project management app, then that would be even better, but my clients and my collaborators are all over the place and I really do need to look after myself.

As with many solutions, one size does not fit all. I admire Clive (well, not just for this) for his ability to create, manage, and sift through a variety of mailbox folders. I’ve seen that done, but I wonder at the effort required. Some folks have mailbox limits, so there are tasks and time associated with keeping yourself inline with IT-imposed restrictions. Making the bold assumption that organizations do backups, why turn one’s self into an email pack-rat and duplicate the data? Isn’t that just another silo? A separate discussion to be sure; all I know is that I can’t work that way. In fact, I know people who keep NO email. Yep, no email. For them it’s a transient form of communication. If it isn’t in the inbox, it doesn’t need to be managed over the long-term.

Radical? Probably. Innovative? Well, I think so.

Atos took a major step, albeit a polarizing one. While it may cause some disruption, I suspect that it’s a change for the better. As with any changes, I think the fact that it is being done quickly will help to minimize any potential chaos (Change Management 101) and the CEO does seem to be leading by example (Leadership 101) and I suspect it’s not something he just happened to read in his morning tea leaves – this is something he’s clearly pondered for a while. He’s also forcing his employees to re-think how they communicate and interact. After all, organizations survived for a long time before email came about. I’m confident that Atos will reap some of the “reactivity” benefits (See: The Hawthorne Effect) of this decision.

It’s the right call, and there’s likely some good case study fodder to come out of it. I also see potential learning impact with respect to sharing corporate knowledge and capitalizing on your organizational intelligence.

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Posted on December 7, 2011, in commentary, ideas, opinion, reflection, thoughts. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. A friend of mine was working for a game development company several years ago (~2004). On the first day on the job he was told to create an instant message (text msg, SMS, ICQ, something like that at the time) account. He was told very clearly that email was ONLY for official project correspondence, like signing off on deliverables. All other conversations would be by text or voice. The company was distributed across at least three countries and had quite tight production schedules. They knew that reliance on email would bog down communications.

    When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Email was our hammer for many years. Now we have a toolbox.

    • Thanks for jumping in with your comments and also for permission to re-use those graphics. Enlightened companies like the one you describe do give me hope, and I love that concept of email as “official correspondence”.

      Yes, we do have a toolbox but we have a dearth of qualified “technicians” to make good use of it for the moment.

  2. Well said, Mark. It reminds me of the people who demand “Death to PowerPoint!”

    For me, this quote of yours gets to the heart of the matter: “So, is the tool the problem?  Of course not.  As with anything else, its how we choose to employ it”.

    Yes, how we use email is a symptom of the broader organisational culture. For example, I think email is used frequently as a butt-covering exercise. Changing mindsets is the key to changing behaviour – but of course that’s a lot harder than knee-jerk reactions!

    • Ryan:

      History is littered with examples of “hearts & minds” exercises that were less successful than originally planned. So while your “changing mindsets” comment is definitely valid, my gut tells me that there are some situations where radical change can shake things up quickly and more effectively than a gradual culture shift; this being one of them.

      For another example, I’d love to see an organization ban or seriously limit in-house printing entirely. Think of the time and effort that goes into print server management, configuration, toner & paper purchases… That kind of act would get my attention in a big way.

      Thanks again for the commentary and kind words. 🙂

  3. A great reflection and response to these articles and convo.

    I like the tool box analogy for communication/collaboration. In my previous position I worked from home and managed a project team in 3 different states. We relied heavily on IM as email felt slow and clumsy. It felt like a step backward moving to my current position where people email documents regularly even though we are all in the same work space! Drives me nuts.

    My marketing sense (my time is split about 50/50 between learning/workplace dev and marketing strategy) suspects the Atos announcement has more to do with marketing/pr positioning (and it worked btw) than empowering employees to improve their workflow – hence my fence position in this particular case. Even though the CEO is “leading by example”, there doesn’t seem to be a support system in place to help employees go “cold turkey”. Disruption can lead to needed change quickly, but it can also create roadblocks to meaningful change if their isn’t a support sytem in place. (this would be a great example of where a modern and agile L&D department could really shine, facilitate and guide). Of course this is all based on a couple of articles..

    I absolutely think email needs to go as a primary communication/collab tool. I prefer “guiding” to “banning”, but ultimately vote for the pink slip.

    • Stephen:

      You raise an excellent point about support mechanisms being in place to help “wean them off” the old ways and get them moving toward alternate forms of communication and exchange. I think there’s the first “lesson learned” for us L&D professionals about how we can scaffold users during that sort of radical change.

      Thanks for the kind words and the commentary.

      -Mark

  4. Many thanks for the pingback, Luis!

  1. Pingback: E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez » Reflections from 2011 – A World Without Email – The Documentary

  2. Pingback: Reflections on #lrnchat 09 Feb « The Hitchhiker's Guide to Learning

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