Reducing the Role of Email in Organizations: Change is OverdueSummary: Although social technology advocates have been calling for the death of email for several years, it’s still the dominant digital channel by which people in organizations communicate and collaborate. The role of email in our work lives should be reduced, however, both because of its own inefficiencies and the increased availability of better tools. Effective leadership is the key to bringing about the required changes in both organizational systems and individual behavior.

In spite of the rise of new platforms, tools and technologies to enable and enhance communication and collaboration, email is still the dominant mode of digital communication in most organizations. It’s also worth noting that email prevails in spite of the fact that it is the bane of many people’s work lives – a tool most love to hate.

A couple of years ago 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), declaring they were phasing out email for internal communication, went viral. Almost all of these items generated a number of impassioned responses rejecting the use of “social” tools for communication and collaboration and defending the role of email. Two years later, the thinking behind those reactions remains prevalent – and that’s not a good thing.

Unfortunately, too many people still believe that incorporating social technologies in organizations means using public platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – or internal social networks that seem to focus more on individual sharing via profiles, status updates and chatting rather than collaboration and getting “real work” done.

Social technology platforms in organizations can certainly include social networking and real-time chat features, but those are just two of the many capabilities most of them offer. With respect to the replacing the role 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 somewhat unfortunate that terms like social business, social enterprise, and social intranet have emerged to describe the application of 2.0 technologies inside organizations. Even though they’re accurate descriptors, many people interpret words like “social” and “chat” to indicate frivolity, shallowness, time wasting and a lack of professionalism. Arguing about semantics can be 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 rather than Internal Social Networks
  • Quick Collaboration or Quick Exchange rather than Chat
  • Announcements and Queries rather than Status Updates

Email’s Inefficiencies

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 conversations and reducing the role of 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 is impermanent and can be asynchronous – can eliminate that.
  • For cases where conversations (and the related institutional knowledge) should be preserved, centralized discussion threads are probably more appropriate than countless email exchanges with duplicate – and often disconnected – content. Not only do discussion threads save resources and minimize confusion, they are also easily accessible to/by others for whom the discussions may be relevant. In other words, alternative forms of communication can provide better tracking, history, archiving, and access than email.
  • 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 (as illustrated below). 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 the future role of email in organizations should be the same as it is today. Instead, we should recognize where it has the most value and where another tool can be more effective. The key is to determine the most efficient and effective channels and tools to use to pursue various objectives and to use them appropriately. We should all be open to using new technologies to help us work smarter. And yet…

Email Attachments
(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, often inexpensive, relatively easy to implement and use, and constantly improving – we simply don’t. This list of reasons is long, and includes

  • 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.” In other words, most of us are still stuck in panel 2 in the above diagram.

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 business leaders who recognize the value in leveraging new digital technologies to enable their employees to work more efficiently and effectively. This type of Digital Era leadership, however, is still 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
  • “Walk the talk” by increasing their own digital competencies and demonstrate their commitment by maximizing the use of new technologies themselves

Call me cockeyed, but I remain optimistic that we’ll see progress on these fronts in the near future…

Original post on the Denovati SMART Blog.