At least 10 years ago, back before email become the time-suck-productivity crutch that it has become today, I recall that Computer Associates instituted an internal policy shutting off its email services during the middle of the day. Its position was a tool initially meant to help improve productivity was getting in the way of meaningful work being done. So, it attempted to meter the flow.
That sort of policy would be really hard to control today, so it is no surprise both technology experts and business executives are so galvanized this month about the fresh re-revelation that French IT services firm Atos Origin was darn serious about its commitment earlier this year to become a "zero email" company. At least when it comes to communications between internal employees.
The three-year transformation was actually set in motion in February. At the time, Atos Orgin Chairman and CEO Thierry Breton declared that the strategy was all about productivity and the "pollution" of the workplace with unnecessary data. He noted:
"The volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business. Managers spend between 5 and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails. They are already using social media networking more than search, and spend 25 percent of their time searching for information. At Atos Origin, for example, we have set up collaboration tools and social community platforms, to share and keep track of ideas on subjects from innovation and Lean Management through to sales. Businesses need to do more of this -- email is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business."
To be sure, there is an element of the self-serving in the move. After all, Atos Origin makes money at least in part by advising businesses about how to use collaborative technologies and social media. Its advice certainly would lose credibility if the company wasn't eating at least some of its own dogfood.
But stop and think about how your own communications habits have changed in the past year, and I defy you to deny that Atos Origin isn't onto something.
Here is a perfect personal example of what I mean. Every month, I write several technology pieces for which I usually need to dig up commentary from individuals that are part of my "social" work sphere but that I might not communicate with on a regular basis. Over the past 12 months, the responses that I have been able to collect and organize by using LinkedIn as my primary outreach mechanism have proven to be much richer than those I've been sending out more randomly through email. Coincidence? I think not.
I think that it comes down to our ability to filter, and despite the best intentions of all the companies working on cool spam blocker technologes, a certain amount always sneaks through. If you are someone like me, and you have managed to get on the "wrong" public relations lists, you are constantly being forced to reply to misguided pitches. (Sure, I sometimes just delete the ones that are totally off base, but I'm usually too polite to ignore the second or third attempts.)
While I was conducting another interview this morning about 2012 trends, another source of mine brought up the topic without any prompting on my part. Both of us marveled at how much unsolicited email we receive and the discipline it takes to keep up with messages that require an immediate response (because they are usually buried among the junk). So much easier, my source suggested, to keep the most relevant communications within either a social network, where the context is crystal clear and the information is readily accessible from lots of different computing devices, or via an internally gated application such as an instant messager or video chat mechanism that keep communications succinct and specific.
In a Los Angeles Times article about the company's progress, a company spokeswoman said the volume of internal email at Atos Origin is down 20 percent since its zero-email proclamation, although the company still has a long way to go before delivering on the promise.
Will email ever go away entirely? Of course not nor is this likely to happen overnight, but we have reached a point at which many managers and companies are going to start rethinking the best processes for sharing information.
Increasingly, those methods might include internal social networks (aka social business software) that provides a specific running commentary of discussions, in context. It might include video conferences, rather than audio conferences. SInce many of us are connected almost all the time now, thanks to our smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices, it might include a unified messaging or communications platform that lets us choose individually the best way to communicate in a given situation. Maybe it even includes more face-to-face meetings, as companies adopt new office configurations and workplace designs.
In that context, email will become much less important, and simultaneously much moreso. Which means when you DO receive important outreach via that communications vehicle, ironically you probably will be able to act on them more promptly than you can today.