There’s not a person who’s not aware of the current limits of email and the fact it has become a factor that limits employees performance. But very few really try deal with this issue once and for all. Among those who dare we can mention Atos Origin that want to become an emai free organization in three years and switch to social networking solutions. Visionaries ? Fools ? Either one or the other depending on how this revolution will be thought. Migrating flows from one environment to the other won’t solve all the problems that employees face and can even generate more complexity. Rethinking the nature of email and the needs in terms of actions and interactions to rationalize it all makes more sense but will need a deep and ambitious work on IT architecture. Social networks won’t replace email in the workplace but they are a first step towards an intelligent social messaging that takes into account all the things employees need and make, finally, tool serve people instead of people serve tools.
A few weeks ago Atos Origin hit the frontline of many sites and blogs, announcing their plan to become an email-free organization in three years and make activities move to social networks. Such a declaration had at least a first positive effect : lots of people talked about it. Either enterprise social software zealots or skeptics who find the idea ridiculous paid attention to it. Now, let’s try to understand what moving from email is about with a little hindsight.
First thing : is it possible to live without email ?
I think so. If I have a look at my mailbox, there are less than 10 valuable emails (worth being read or needing an action from me) every day. Some people, in fact, already managed to get rid of email. My good friend Luis Suarez has been working on what he calls “email starvation” for three years without any downside in his work. I even guess his productivity increased. Since he’s a remote worker for a very large organization we may think that doing so may be have been something very difficult for him. But he did it.
But we should not forget what lies behind such an impressive achievement :
- a tough personal discipline and enough abnegation to spend energy to educate customers and co-workers every day.
- an employer that provides him with the right tools to avoid the email curse and manage his internal and external information flows efficiently.
In my point of view the concept of flow is essential here. Moving away from email is not enough to decrease the amount of information to be dealt with. In fact, it will move to another place and be even more broken up. So the result would even look like a regression. We should stop thinking about email as a tool that’s used to send electronic mails but think about its new nature.
There are two different things here. First the information, second the signal that tells us the information is available. The first can be hosted anywhere depending on its nature. A social media but also a traditional business application. It can be shared or not, it’s possible to react to it or interact around it in a structured, capitalizable and intelligible way, privately, publicly or for a selected audience.
Then there’s the signal. It allows us to read the information, access it, process it in one click.
In comparison with what we know today, we have to change our paradigm :
- stop considering information regarding to its nature, where it was generated or stocked (mail, excel sheet, word document, CRM report) what causes application silos that make no sense. What qualifies information is its relevance, not its source. Today, we switch from a tool to another depending on the source.
- make any application able to generate a signal, all the signals being gathered in a single recipient. That’s not email as we knowi it but the new nature of email. It receives all signals that are sent to us, and its name does not matter.
- then, in the recipient, prioritize and filter information regarding to our criteria. Ideally, depending on these criteria and, possibility, on an intelligent analysis based on our history, we get a relevant and expurgated view of information. That improves the noise/signal ration. It also helps to distinguish the information that should be pushed to us from what has only to be accessible in case of need without bothering our instant flow.
- last, we have to make this information actionable in the recipient. Answer if it’s an email, share the content of the message in another app (for instance a CRM chart in a workgroup or community), act (approve a request in a workflow), answer (to a comment, something posted in a community). Il should all be possible without leaving the tool, breaking people flow of work, without asking employees to act as middleware.
- of course, the social tools used in this context can be used in secured bubbles with people who don’t belong to the enterprise.
Let’s go back to our “move from email to social networks” problematic. Social networks are a part of a new architecture of the information system that won’t kill email but will make it ready for the XXIst century, turning it into a social messaging or social signal system. But thinking that a migration of flows from one to another without a more global vision is at least unrealistic and can, at worse, lead to a catastrophe.
As a matter of fact it would be like misjudging all the traditional enterprise applications. It would also create a social bubble with no connection with flows of work and documents. The future of email is in an abstraction layer that socializes and standardizes the whole IS, regardless to the nature and the origin of each component.
Google wave has this in its DNA. Maybe this ambition will become a reality with Novell Pulse that relies on its technology. There are lots of things at IBM too as I saw during last Lotusphere. The “Social Business Framework” topped with “Project Vulcain” as a standardization layer seems to be going in the right direction.
We also have to mention Tibbr that looks very promising but which success will depend on whether organization will really want to integrate flows or not. Other ideas ?
One thing is sure : in three years we’ll learn a lot from Atos Origine experience. In any sense.
PS : this is the “tool” part of the vision. It’s obvious that it makes no sense without a usage driven approach that will transform the way work is done.