Atos, a giant tech firm with billions of dollars in revenues annually, recently announced that they plan to put in place a Zero Internal Email policy for all internal communication by 2014. This has grabbed a lot of attention, and has invited comments, both negative and positive. We thought it would make sense to try and understand what might be Atos's motiviation towards trying to do this, and whether moving to Zero internal email makes any sense at all.
What is Atos' motivation for moving to Zero Internal Emails
1. Email Clutter: This is a well known problem, and we touched upon it in our blog post CC is Evil. Today, the reason behind email overload and clutter is not Spam, but "Quasi Spam" - email that is sent to a lot of people who do not really need to read the email. Think project related emails being blindly sent to 50 team members, when its directly relevant to only two or three of them. Or the sales staff CC-ing their manager on every email just to cover their backs. Emails like these are the larger part of what leads to email overload. Mailing lists, too, are a huge culprit here.
2. Attention Switches: For a lot of people, Email is work - think sales people. But for a vast majority of knowledge workers, Email is just a way to communicate about work. Switching from work, which might be programming, designing stuff or solving problems to looking at one's email unquestionably requires an 'Attention Switch', which leads to inefficiency. A lot of people look at their email inboxes dozens of times in a day, leading to many such attention switches. For many, looking at the inbox tends to become almost an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This definitely is a big problem.
Both of the above lead to serious loss of productivity, and its important to do something about both of these problems. But lets look deeper at how Atos plans to solve these problems by dumping email and moving to a different set of tools.
Do the alternatives to email solve Atos' problems
There are lots of solutions available in the market to help communication and collaboration within companies. Almost all of them are built around three key components: 1. Wikis 2. Newsfeeds or Acitvity feeds 3. Discussion forums. Every solution might use a different set of names for each of these components, but that does not make these components much different from being plain wikis, activity feeds and discussion forums. While wikis and discussion forums are the two areas for people to collaborate in, it is the newsfeed which shows the user whats going on and what is relevant to her. But does the newsfeed do any better than email when it comes to the two problems with email that we just discussed? Lets see:
1. Clutter: From our experience with Facebook and Twitter, we know that newsfeeds can be massively cluttered. There's nothing more distracting than a constantly refreshing, constantly scrolling newsfeed which will almost definitely have new stuff for you to look at every 15 minutes or so. In terms of their ability to create clutter, a newsfeed or activity feed is no better than a set of mailing lists which send around information to tons of people almost indiscrimately.
2. Attention Switches: It is pretty hard to understand how a newsfeed would do better than an email inbox at not drawing people's attention too frequently. It is very likely that for a person in a company on a typical day, a newsfeed would have more content scrolling through it than would land up in her inbox. That would almost definitely translate to more attention switches and loss of productivity.
It is not hard to see that the core of Atos' problem is not email, but the way people use email. And its not clear how that is being taken care of in alternatives to email. If anything can solve the problem, it is discipline and the exercise of right practices while communicating with colleagues.
What really needs fixing
What really needs fixing is not email, but how people use it. More discipline in two area can help nail it:
1. Who do we send email to: Stop CC and mailing list abuse now! Send an email only to people who it is directly relevant to. Don't send email to people 'just to make sure they know what I'm doing' or 'cover my back'. Every email one receives takes them time to read and dispose of - and that holds true for you too. Do unto others what you'd wish them to do to you.
2. Stop staring at the inbox: Looking at the inbox every fifteen minutes would not make an email with a pay raise land up from nowhere. Clearly demarcate time for dealing with your email. Once in the morning, afternoon and evening each are enough for most people. Try sticking to that.
How hard is it to fix
(2) above is an individual problem, but (1) is more than that. It is systemic, because people don't CC tons of people on emails just because they're used to it, but because of the dynamics of the functioning of a company. Sending an email to a lot of people is a defensive tactic, with the simple intention of letting all of the recepients know that "I did that". That is not an individual problem, but actually a systemic one.
What really needs fixing is the systemic problems, not deploying a new set of tools. If the fundamental problems remain, any set of tools would ultimately be distorted and given a shape that they must take to accommodate the very problems they were deployed to solve.
Niraj is the Founder of GrexIt. GrexIt turns Gmail into a powerful collaboration tool by letting you share your Gmail labels. When not working at GrexIt on programming or customer support, Niraj likes to play guitar.
Niraj can be reached on Twitter at nirajr.