Dec 14, 2011

Killing the Killer App

Here we go again...

The CEO of Atos, Thierry Breton,  made recent tech headlines for taking the radical position to ban email at his firm.

I can't help but feel jaded skepticism every time I hear the media exploit this conversation missing the most important point: in business, email is strategic. Email is a vital part of how many organizations communicate internally as well as with clients, customers, partners, and suppliers. We've come to rely on email so much in business that I've had CIOs tell me that they could live without the phone system longer than without the email system. 

And we've heard it all. The horror stories of bloated email databases, inboxes that overwhelm users, the horrific ways that email interfaces support collaboration, etc. Rightfully so, users and managers are fed up with all of these issues. 

Breton estimates that only 10% of the 200 messages his employees receive on an average day are useful, and that 18% is spam. Managers spend between 5 and 20 hours a week reading and writing e-mails, he says.
A tool that was built to improve productivity has become, perceived or otherwise, a drain on time and resources. A tool that too many of us turn to for all our communication out of convenience rather than how well it is suited to what we need to communicate. Face it, for all the problems, email is generally reliable, personal, familiar, and crosses organizational as well as technical boundaries so users don't have to.

So the headline making comments, e.g., "Should we ban email in the workplace?," do just that, get  our attention. But the Atos approach is much more level-headed than the headlines will have you believe. It is one of careful and strategic thought about how we communicate in the workplace.

As email radical thinkers point out that turning off email isn't as easy as flipping a switch or declaring it dead. It is, however, possible to reduce our dependence on email and modify our email behavior so that it remains a useful tool rather than a burden. This weaning can't be done overnight, as Mr. Price, a representative of Atos, admits in a Pat Morrison interview on KPCC:

The original announcement goes back to earlier this year. There were studies done at the time that measured the number of emails that passed between people at that identify the bad behaviors and try to cut those out and improve the way we begin to introduce a rage of tools...that allow people to communicate.

Improving how people communicate, and how email is used in the workplace, requires a strategy. Understanding how employees communicate and collaborate is key to building out a communications and collaboration infrastructure to support the different ways that people communicate. It's not a bout finding a new tool to replace the old one. Mr. Price points out:

A lot of people ask is this about the movement of one technology to another technology? What it is about is finding the right communication medium for the type of communication you want to undertake.

There at better alternatives to using email for different types of communicant and collaboration. companies need to understand how their workers communicate, have a plan, build the infrastructure, and put the support in place for its users. Only then will email be useful and not a burden.

Of course there are many of us for whom this conversation isn't new. But it seems we continue to focus on finding a killer for the "killer app" when what we really need is a strategy for offering the "right communication medium for the type of communication [we] want to undertake."