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:
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.