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Email: the rock that blunts your collaborative scissors

03.19.2014
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Email. We all have it, we all use it and without a doubt it’s revolutionised the way we work. If you’re as old as me then you’ll remember working life before email (the 9-5 day, faxing, telephoning) and you’ll remember the excitement of sending and receiving your first emails and the impact it had on the speed and efficiency of sending and receiving information.

Over the last 20 years, email has become *the* way to work. Got a document to send? Email with attachment. Got a message to communicate? Awesome upbeat email. Got to assign some tasks? Snippy email. Want some opinions? Begging email. Frustrated with someone? Capital letter email. Its like everything was so difficult and time consuming before email that when it came along we were so overwhelmed with its brilliance, we got over-excited and forced all our interactions through it. Now we are reluctant to embrace anything else. Like a hungry dog finally given a bone, we growl at anyone who tries to take it away.

The thing that no-one wants to admit is that email has become the problem child; the one that demands all our attention, giving us less time to spend focusing on stuff that could really make a difference. It is a productivity hoover that sucks up time faster than a plutonium enriched Delorean.

According to Scott Berkun, author of “The Year Without Pants” (on his time at wordpress.com – a company that doesn’t rely on email), there are three main reasons email gets in the way of collaborative working practices:

1. Email is a very closed channel

Like an exclusive nightclub, if your name’s not down, you can’t get in. There’s no way to see an email if it’s not sent to you.

So not only are you not in the know, you have no way of getting in the know. You don’t even realise that the information exists, let alone who has it. You can not choose to find the information yourself because you cannot access anyone else’s email and even if you could how would you know whose email box to hack?

2. At best, email reinforces existing silos. At worst it creates new ones

Email perishes. Faster than a soft cheese left in the sun. If you receive a great email and are blown away by the insightful contents, full of handy tips and best practice you naturally want to keep it and refer back to it as and when you need. So it stays in your inbox or you hide it in a folder, away from others, away from new employees, away from the rest of your team. Then when you leave that organisation, you forward it to your new work email and hide it there.

That knowledge stays with you and never makes it into your role. Therefore overtime, existing organisational knowledge diminishes and it takes time and costs productivity to get it back.

3. Email is passive/aggressive

The receiver is passive because they have little control over what is sent to them, when. They can’t choose which information they receive and which is irrelevant to them. The sender however is aggressively empowered to deliver what they like, when they like, spamming the hell out of their colleagues, most of whom only have a tangible link to the information being sent. How much of this ends up deleted or moved to a folder ‘just in case’?

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Compare this to social enterprise tools such as blogs, forums, team sites and profile timelines. If all employees channeled their documents, ideas, thoughts and requests on a shared platform:

  • They could get a response from someone they wouldn’t have normally thought to ask
  • Expertise – theirs and others – becomes available to anyone who cares to seek it (not stuck in inboxes)
  • Expertise and knowledge stays in the business, not solely with the person
  • Expertise and knowledge is searchable and findable by any employee, current or future
  • No searching through email chains of responses, document ping-pong or puzzling email trails
  • Documents can have a version control so you are never using one that’s out of date or using up precious mb storing stuff in email folders
  • Readers choose when and what information to receive (you subscribe to blogs that you find interesting and take part in forums where you have something to say)
  • Crowd sourcing ideas involves anyone who wants to be involved, not just a handpicked group of the usual suspects

However to achieve this, you need to make sure that all employees are actively participating. If some employees are using the tools and some are clinging to the old email way, chances are it will be less effective.

That’s why some leaders are taking the decision to convert to zero email completely within their organisations. Yep, that’s right, no internal email. What? But how will anything get done? The whole company will grind to a halt! Not so say WordPress (previously mentioned) and French IT services firm Atos Origin who in 2011 promised to have zero emails internally in 3 years. CEO and Chairman, Theirry Breton said that:

the production of data on a massive scale was fast polluting the working environment and encroaching on personal lives”. He commented that “the volume of emails we send and receive was unsustainable for business; with managers spending between 5 and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails.

By embracing collaboration tools and social platforms they will share and keep track of ideas on subjects from innovation to sales. He stated “businesses need to do more of this – email is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business”.

Initial feedback was that adoption of these types of tools reduced email by 10-20% almost immediately. You can read actual accounts of how it has worked for employees on the Atos Zero Email blog.

US company All Western Mortgage also dropped internal email in favour of social tools, starting with a 60 day trial before rolling it out to their 450 employees. Only their 350 sales people have access to an email system in order to communicate with external customers but no-one has internal email communications with fellow colleagues. Customers can still email in, but instead of the request or issue going to an individual, it goes to departments where a select few workers can receive it and respond. Their response comes via re-posting the contents on the email on their social enterprise system and gathering the right answer from other employees.

Moving towards zero email is a big step, and not something that can happen overnight. and whilst you may not be ready to completely do away with email for ever, how about a trial period and see what happens? Sharpen your collaborative scissors by dumping the rock of email.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Interact Intranet Bloggers.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)