Email: Threat Or Menace?

A specter is haunting the enterprise -- the specter of email. Where is the knowledge worker who has not felt the oppressive weight of email overload? Where is the business leader who has not complained bitterly of the wastefulness and productivity drain?

Two things result from this situation:

        I.            Email is depicted as a disease that must be eradicated, or a foe to be defeated.

      II.            Vendors and consultants offer fever reducers, defensive tactics, and visions of a utopian future free of email.

Last week the English language news sites were atwitter (in both senses) with the announcement by Atos CEO Thierry Breton that the French technology company intends to ban internal email usage among its 74,000 employees within 18 months. Perhaps thanks to my last blog post on email, The Independent called for an interview on "the death of email." The BBC did a radio debate, but obstinately refused to change their programming to accommodate my schedule.

(I say English language because Breton’s announcement was duly covered in French and German when he first made it last February. So much for a flat world and instant global communications.)

Breton claims that only 10% of the 200 emails a typical employee receives daily are “useful,” and 18% is spam. He likens email to “pollution” in the working environment, and says Atos is “taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organizations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.” Well, it took most organizations at least 150 years to attend to environmental pollution, so we can be happy the campaign to sop up toxic email is moving more rapidly.

But it’s telling that Atos’s anti-email effort is an old-fashioned, top-down, you’ll-do-it-because-the-boss-says-so directive. Atos’s relatively young workforce reportedly is warm to the idea. But according to Forrester’s last survey of US information workers (and the numbers would not vary significantly for EMEA), 85% use email daily. The next most popular communication method, instant messaging, came in at 28%. And the enterprise 2.0 social technologies (wikis, blogs, internal social networks, and internal micro blogging) that are supposed to be revolutionizing the workplace? None of them exceeded 5% and the four of them together amounted to only 15%.

There’s a very real danger, then, that if an organization like Atos files “email bankruptcy” (Lawrence Lessig’s term for deleting your inbox), it may instead amount to communication suicide.

Email pollutes work environments and drowns employees not because it exists but because it is abused. We could have a long debate (and I hope we will in the comments) about what constitutes proper use and inappropriate abuse of email, but here is a simple guideline: Try to remember that email is electronic mail. Would you use mail to collaborate on a document with six colleagues? (“Please mark your suggested changes on the report, make six copies, and mail them back to each of the people cc’d on this message.”) Would you use mail to determine when a bunch of people were free for a one-hour meeting? Would you use mail for instant messaging?

As Atos’s managing partner Rob Price said on the BBC broadcast, the whole point is to choose the right form of communication. But that means if you have an email problem (and who doesn’t), the best answer probably isn’t to ban email. (Turning away itinerant minstrels at the city gate didn’t defeat the Black Death.) Rather you should develop a comprehensive communication and collaboration strategy that:

·         Identifies communication requirements and flows in specific business processes

·         Provisions the appropriate types of communication support for a given requirement, considering response time (synchronous or asynchronous), interaction model (one to one, one to many, many to many), and indirect communication such as what Andrew McAfee calls “narrating your work” in an activity stream

·         Establishes governance, standards, and guidelines for each means of communication

·         Implements carrot and/or stick incentives to drive adoption and ensure appropriate use

Email will have its place in such a strategy. That place will be considerably smaller than it is in most organizations today. And it may well be supplemented and enhanced by the solutions from vendors such as ActionBase,, HyperOffice, and Xobni that make email more dynamic, social, or better integrated with other collaboration solutions such as Microsoft SharePoint, and generally knit email more firmly into business processes. (And, as Don Neely remarked on my last email post with regard to Lotus Notes, the email vendors themselves are responding with richer functionality and a business orientation.)

Email isn’t evil. In fact, it’s an inherently good thing, which, like many good things, can be damaging and costly if used inappropriately or excessively.

What do you think? Would you welcome a ban on email in your company? Could the business function without it?



Superb Post

Working for an email management vendor you can imagine since this story broke we've been suffering a deluge of "email is dead".... emails. (have these people have no sense of irony I ask?)

It's especially funny given I work with the co-creator of the MIME standard.

Like you so eloquently point out, email is not at fault, it's just become abused- partly because of it's strengths and flexibility- it is now the catch all communication for... pretty much anything, like you point out.

What people need to have is re-training- WHY should we be sending the email? Is it the RIGHT communication method?

Case of Email vs enterprise social software vs social media

For conversations, email was good for years but not anymore. I hardy see any need for point-to-point communication. I would vote for zero email policy.


I love social media more than the next guy- but for running a business, no way!

YES way

I've watched tibbr being used by my company (TIBCO), and it works far better than email and for most things, is the go-to source for information. If I need to a charge code for a customer...that's where it is. If I need to find out if we've done a type of work before...that's where I find it. Our CEO is unreachable on email, but very accessible on social media. If you see it in action, you'll change your mind.

Email has its place, but not everywhere

Watching the debate for a while, it became clear to me that people don't necessarily know the use cases for social or the downside to using email inappropriately. So I wrote up my opinion here:

Email has for far too long been a business process management and collaboration tool. It is a message service. Social technologies are moving very fast, and you can send attachments, point-to-point messages, and be far more transparent in the ways you should (which is most ways) through this media. If you understand the technology well, it changes your opinion.

I agree

Email has become abused because of it's flexibility and ubiquity. It doesn't make it the criminal though- the people using it are the criminals here.

I aslo completely agree- E2.0 tools such as Yammer/Chatter etc can deliver amazing benefits if used well, particularly to surface information and foster collaboration.

But it's not the panacea- we still need email! Those Yammer notifications and digests- how do you get them? Via email?

What I think is great about this ridiculous story is people are finally open to the idea that email has been abused for far too long and while a brilliant tool has become the bane of some peoples existence. We need to combine email with other tools- the right tools for the job- which will co-exist with email, replacing it for some tasks (like microblogging, but who really ever did that on email anyway?), augmenting it for others.

When all you have a hammer, everything you see looks like nails. When you have a toolbox full of tools, you have a choice of the right tool for the job in hand.

Don't shoot the email messenger

Thanks for all of the great comments - keep them coming !
We do have some clear differences of opinion. Yogesh likes the zero-email policy, while Justin seems to prefer a zero-social approach. I would have to say I agree with both and neither.

Let me explain. I can imagine a workplace without email. (Actually, I can't quite imagine it, but I won't deny it could exist.) But the eradication of email has to be the result of a careful analysis and the identification and testing of workable alternatives. To borrow Breton's pollution analogy: If you live in a city with high air pollution levels, it could be very unhealthy. But it doesn't follow that you should stop breathing.

On the other hand, we happily use IM, blogs, and discussion forums at Forrester, so I can't agree that social is unfit for work. But I do agree that social-for-the-sake-of-social is literally not workable, as I said in this blog about Babe the pig

Make sense?

Yes, but

I agree with you!

I'm arguing for the RIGHT mix of technologies, including Social, IM etc.

There's more out there

There is a great deal more out there than Jive and Yammer. We use a different product and I can tell you from three months experience that it replaces the need for email in our workplace. I have a single interface where I can follow people AND subjects, attach documents, attach links, and carry it around on my iPad, iPhone or use it in a browser. Email is redundant in this environment and everything is transparent where it should be. Point-to-point messages are available as well. It is pretty much Facebook for the enterprise, but topics are business concepts. I subscribe to the products I want to know about and the customers that matter to me. I subscribe to my boss (just seems a good idea) and to key people in the organization that I'd like to 'listen' to. In only three months after our acquisition, and working remotely, I know more about this company and their people than I knew in years at past employers.

Seeing is believing. I've seen it. It replaces email.

Technology and best practice

Chris, I'm interested in the application your company chose and how it was implemented to gain the traction you describe. Would you be able to share?

Do tell

Yes, I am also very interested in hearing about (and even better, seeing) how you've put this solution to work.

reply privately and I'll set it up

Contact me privately and I'll give you a 15-minute walk through.


I'd love to experience it!

my 2 cents

For most people technology is nothing more than another tool (at times even useful). If I have one tool that (I think) does the job, or that I can tune to do the job, why bothering learning other *great* tools that will make my and my colleagues lives *easier*? Email's been around for quite a long and we've had plenty of time for that tuning...

In the long term, well, its use may decline, but not for now IMHO. BTW, markets seem to like Jive (25% up in a couple of days in NASDAQ).

I've been using jive, sharepoint. They're useful but I do not see the huge improvement needed to make regular people abandon email, or balance its usage.

Won't we miss standards after the death of e-mail?

E-mail is first and foremost a set of standards that ensure interoperability. Thanks to these standards, companies and individuals can communicate with all the variety of IT environments and devices. Of course we can adopt more specific and efficient tools for team work, content management and business processes, but we'll always need the Jack-of-all-Trade application that can communicate anything to anyone. All the other tools can't compete on interoperability, and to be frank, the lack of undisputed standard for other apps such as social collaboration or videochat is quite disappointing.

How to Train the People?

I agree with Justin, the people should use the "right" tool. Right means best fitting their communication needs, I think.

The problem is not technology, the problem is the usage of it. Most people simply don't think abaut it. What I miss in this discussion is, how to build and develop the right kind of media competence most users lack.
Have somebody a guideline which steps should be used?
Any experiences what kind of training might work?

Excellent post and debate

Excellent post and debate here, Tim. I agree that the rash decision to go all or nothing with email leaves the doors wide open for “communication suicide” as you put it. I think what’s important to ask is, “Could your business function without it?” – the key words being “your business.” It’s not an all or nothing strategy, it’s, just as many others have said here, about the right tool for the right job. Collaboration strategy is something to be tailored, not a one-size-fits-all approach. And it must be transparent, especially when working with multi-party collaboration.

Additionally, the governance, standards and guidelines you mention in your post would be an interesting topic worth diving into further. I think what’s often overlooked is if the collaborative communication is being well-documented to prevent any legal risk. I discussed it here in my Computerworld “Collaboration for Grown ups” series:

Thanks for bringing these discussion points to mind, everyone. Looking forward to more conversations here!