According to a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the average office worker spends 28 hours a week – or nearly 1500 hours a year – writing emails, searching for information and attempting to “collaborate” internally. The report argues that wide adoption of social media technologies by businesses could cut down some of the time-wasting involved in emailing and improve worker productivity by 20 to 25 per cent.
This is all great stuff, and will perhaps incentivise some CEO’s to consider implementing social technologies into their organisations. After all, the prospect of a 25 per cent productivity improvement where money is tight and competition is avaricious is not something to be dismissed lightly.
But am I the only sceptic that is prepared to challenge the “great myth” that email is the root cause of worker inefficiency and the blight of our 21st century lives? Perhaps this seems odd coming from someone who is an advocate for social technology as an enabler for more effective sharing and collaboration.
I would agree that social technology is the engine that is driving today’s knowledge ecology and that we’re only just starting to discover the opportunities that a far more connected society can deliver. However, email is just as much a part of this as – say – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yammer, Sharepoint, or any number of Enterprise Social Software solutions. It’s not an “either/or” choice between email and social technology. Email has been the foundation for how business gets done for the past 30 years or so, and I’m willing to predict it will be around for the next 30 years or so. Used properly, it’s still one of the most effective ways of communicating.
What is email good for:
- Email arrives near instantaneously. It can be accessed from almost anywhere. It brings not just text, but pictures, documents, links, and more.
- Email is great for non-urgent communication. Things that don’t require an immediate response that others can deal with on their schedule.
- Email can provide a powerful documentation trail. Unlike text messages or phone calls, email provides an authenticated audit trail of past communication. It is hard to deny past actions and messages when there is a clear history.
- Email is one of the best mediums for communicating across time zones. It allows people on different schedules to communicate at their leisure.
- Message formatting features come as standard.
- The email client is a personal information management database. It can be browsed, sorted, filtered, tagged and searched. Features which I’ve yet to see implemented in most Enterprise Social Software activity streams.
- Email can be closely integrated with business workflows, where an action or decision is required.
- Email provides an (almost) foolproof 2-way authentication, hence why it is still used by nearly all online service providers to verify new accounts.
What is it not good for?
This post in not meant to be a heralding cry for more use of email; I just wanted to add some perspective and balance to what I see as a rather misguided campaign to replace email with social technologies. Email is not the best medium for sharing knowledge with a large number of people, nor is it a very good tool for collaborating on a document or a project plan. In fact, if your starting point is to encourage more fluid knowledge flows and wider engagement with your workforce, stakeholders and partners, then you really need to be looking at social technologies, such as blogs, forums, wikis, social bookmarking, integrated activity streams etc.
A blended approach to “social business’
I firmly believe that the best approach for improving productivity is a blend of social technology and email. Social technology can break down silo’d working practices, join-up thematic knowledge repositories and help to flatten hierarchies. Email would still be the foundation for how business gets done and how decisions are made. Integrating the two is the key to a successful business. Anyone who thinks that a business can survive by consensus decision-making delivered by social tools is sadly misguided. Using social tools to inform the decision-making process is the model that makes most sense.
Life without email?
I think I’ve made my opinion on this quite clear – it will be around for the foreseeable future, and will probably outlive many of today’s social media products. It’s not “either/or” it’s both, and they can co-exist. Which is why I found the Atos strategy somewhat disconcerting:
Thierry Breton, CEO of the French IT services company Atos, announced at the end of 2011 that his company will become “a zero e-mail company within three years.” His reason: the volume of e-mail that he and his employees have to deal with is unsustainable and harms the business. Breton estimates that managers spend between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing e-mails. On average, each of Atos’s 80,000 employees was receiving more than 100 e-mails per day, of which only 15 percent were deemed “useful.” By shifting communications to social platforms, François Gruau, senior vice president for business development and innovation, expects Atos staff to be “able to collaboratively process information with more focus, speed, and precision.”
Atos is counting on social technologies to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing. The company estimates that employees spend 25 percent of their time looking for information or expertise. So Atos is pushing employees to use a social community platform to share and keep track of ideas on subjects from innovation to sales. In the first few weeks after the initial announcement, these tools helped reduce e-mail volume by up to 20 percent.
There are so many issues with this statement that I don’t know where to start. It would be interesting to know how the “only 15% [of emails] were deemed useful” figure was derived. Presumably from the perspective of the receiver and not the sender.
Also, “….Atos is pushing employees to use a social community platform to share and keep track of ideas on subjects from innovation to sales”. The statement might have sounded better if it was encouraging employees as opposed to pushing. In my experience, take-up of social community platforms is predicated on whether the user derives value from the platform, rather than from a dictum to use it.
It will be interesting to see how this strategy pans out over the next 2-3 years and whether they do achieve their goal of becoming a “zero email company”. If they succeed in their goal then I’ll be eating dollops of humble pie!
This may appear a paradox, but having made the case for email, I will conclude by saying that reducing reliance on it is probably the right strategy. I’ll clarify this further by stating that the root cause of wasted time is likely to be through misuse or poor use of email. In particular, the over-use of cc’s and bcc’s for mass-distribution. Features that were put there before the advent of social tools. Also the cascade of corporate/team/group newsletters, and anything “FYI”. Organisations that are deploying social platforms should prioritise these activities and behaviours as a means to reducing email volumes. One radical step might even be to remove the cc and bcc capability altogether.
Seven simple steps for reducing unnecessary email:
- Move all distribution lists that are not confidential to blogs (i.e. change the email address of the distribution list to post to an internal blog). People can subscribe and unsubscribe themselves thereby both reducing the need for an IT resource to do this and for individuals to manage the resulting emails.
- Give all project teams a closed group and encourage them to be more transparent, updating the group whenever they have accomplished something or need to ask a question.
- Turn off or discourage people from using cc or bcc features on email. Encourage anything that needs a cc to go into a social network blog or discussion board. Discourage bcc’s almost entirely.
- Disable or discourage emailing documents. They should all go into a shared space.
- Encourage people to answer questions that they receive through a blog post or Intranet forum. That way they only have to answer the question once and it is discoverable for others.
- Advertise and promote an “email-free” day, where no emails get answered. This may encourage workers not to send an email and to think of other alternatives. There may even be the option of actually talking to a colleague!
- Begin an education programme on email protocol. This should include:
- Dealing with confidential information
- Contact management
- Personal information
- Accepting email from external contacts
- How to manage your inbox and folders
At the end of the day, it’s all about getting smarter with how we use and share information. The cost of managing this information today is mostly hidden. It’s the hours each of us spends reviewing, organising and deleting emails and the hours we spend answering the same questions over and over again. This waste is not really ‘seen’ by the organisation because it’s been absorbed primarily by individuals in their ‘free’ time.
Smart organisations will educate their staff and help them understand when to use email and when to use social technologies. Email is best for detailed exchanges, decision-making and information that require a high degree of accountability. Social tools are best suited for engagement, collaboration and knowledge sharing. All of this should ideally be embraced in the organisation’s social media policies and guidelines documentation.
Accomplishing all of the above will get people more comfortable with social software tools and dynamics and it will give them some relief from the information torrent.