A recent statement made by Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos, about the "elimination" of email at the company churned up quite a bit of controversy in cyberspace. Many of the pieces sharing the news included misinformation, and much of the commentary reflected misunderstanding. This post clarifies what Atos is actually doing, offers insights on why it’s the right move, reflects on some of the reasons for resistance, and highlights the importance of strong leadership in enabling organizations to move ahead in the Digital Era.
Last week there were a number of articles and blog posts about “the end of email” after news of a statement by the CEO of Atos (a large French technology company) went viral. Almost all of these items generated a number of impassioned responses rejecting the use of “social” tools and defending the use of email for a variety of purposes.
Unfortunately, many of the pieces written about the announcement included sensationalistic headlines and/or misinformation, and many people took the news quite literally – which seemed to cause much of the harsh, knee-jerk reactions. So let’s start by clarifying what CEO Thierry Breton was really referring to:
- His decision was focused on internal email only.
- Atos will not be using a public platform like Facebook for internal communication. Rather, they will use similar tools that are designed for private social networking.
- Atos will not replace email with internal social networking and instant messaging exclusively. The idea is to leverage a variety of 2.0 tools to improve employees’ ability to communicate and collaborate.
Expanding on the third point, many of the comments I read seemed to reflect a poor understanding of the kinds of communication and collaboration tools that are now available for organizations of all types (not just large, high-tech firms). Social business platforms can certainly include social networking and real-time chat features, but those are just two of the many capabilities most of them offer (for more on social business technologies and their applications, check out slides 7-19 in this presentation). With respect to the replacement of email in particular, the key features to focus on include asynchronous chat streams (including status updates and microblogging), discussion forums, wikis, file sharing and editing, and the ability to create centralized group and project worksites.
It’s probably unfortunate that terms like social business, social enterprise, and social intranet have emerged to describe the application of 2.0 technologies inside organizations. Many people interpret words like “social” and “chat” to indicate frivolity, shallowness, time wasting and a lack of professionalism. Arguing about semantics can be such a distraction, but relabeling and reframing the tools may help skeptics get over their resistance and focus on their “work value.” We could, for example, refer to:
- Private Digital Networks r/t Internal Social Networks
- Quick Collaboration or Quick Exchange r/t Chat
- Announcements and Queries r/t Status Updates
In many respects, email can be considered the granddaddy of today’s social business tools – it certainly meets the basic definition of social media I shared in Part 1 of the Social Media Primer (updated here). But, relatively speaking, it’s fairly unsophisticated and clunky. And, more importantly, it’s often misused and abused.
Given its inefficiencies, the goal behind shifting away from email is a valid one. For example:
- Lots of exchanges (e.g., when/where do you want to meet?) don't need to be preserved, and each message in the back and forth gets saved, causing lots of unnecessary duplication. Having a centralized chat feature - which can be asynchronous - can eliminate that.
- For cases where the conversation should be preserved, a centralized discussion thread is probably more appropriate than dozens of email exchanges with duplicate – and often disconnected – content. Not only does a single discussion thread save resources and minimize confusion, it's also easily accessible to/by others for whom the discussion may be relevant.
- Exchanging documents via email is a colossal waste, and it can create a lot of confusion. Rather than passing a document around, it's better to put the document in a central, shared location and let people come to it. Doing so is not only more efficient, it also better enables people to know what the latest version is and can prevent two people from attempting to revise the document at the same time. History on the document can also be tracked.
Today's social business platforms offer both individuals and organizations more efficient and effective ways to get their work done. For me the key advantage of these platforms is that rather than having the work distributed to the workers, the work is centralized and the workers come to it. That reduces unnecessary duplication, confusion about what version of something is the most current or what the latest word/decision was on a particular issue/conversation, and many other benefits.
Email won’t go away, but that doesn’t mean we should continue to use it the way we do today. Instead, we should recognize where it has the most value and where another tool can be more effective. We should all be open to using new technologies to help us work smarter. And yet…
(and I’m not Talking about Documents)
One of the most powerful realities of the world we live in today is that the capabilities of the communication and collaboration technologies available to us far outstrip our human ability to harness them. It's not that we can't use these tools – they are widely available, inexpensive, and relatively easy to implement and use – we simply don't. This list of reasons is long, and include
- Our tendencies to resist change, stay inside our comfort zones and take the path of least resistance
- Fear (of the unknown, of failure...)
- Our unwillingness to risk learning something new
- Our short-term focus and tendency to be in a hurry ("get it done now" rather than "do it right")
Another key element that is too often overlooked is the fact that we're still using Industrial Era models and modes of working, even though we're well into the Digital Era. For example, rather than collectively creating and refining a single repository of relevant knowledge/information using wiki technology (think barn raising), we prefer a more linear, assembly-line approach of passing around a document that we "manufacture."
There's also an ironic contradiction in how we function in our personal and professional lives. On a personal level, many of us are very comfortable working in a divergent, non-linear fashion – which I would argue is natural for our brains – but when it comes to work we kick into structured, Tayloresque factory mode. Why? Because this is what we’ve been taught throughout both our academic and work lives. The habits are deeply ingrained and tough to change.
So what’s a Digital Era worker to do?
It All Boils Down to Leadership
I commend Thierry Breton and other business leaders who recognize the value in leveraging new digital technologies to enable their employees to work more efficiently and effectively. As demonstrated by the reaction to his recent comments, however, this type of Digital Era leadership is still extremely rare. Most leaders do not understand the potential power and uses of new technologies – or how important it is to educate themselves about both their applications and implications (both external and internal). Those who do recognize they need to:
- Make the increased use of digital technologies a strategic and operational priority
- Support the creation/adoption of new tools and technologies
- Allocate necessary resources (both money and time) to enable employees to use these tools effectively
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in 2012…
- Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD