Major IT services company tries to boost productivity by ditching e-mail

Even tech companies can't always tell when they're drinking the wrong Kool-Aid

Is the key to real productivity a decision to get rid of your email?

The CEO of an $11.5 billion French technology services company thinks so.

Atos CEO Thierry Breton told the Wall Street Journal he hadn't sent an email in three years and is on a mission to eliminate it within his company in favor of instant messaging, Wiki-like internal sites for communication and file exchange or via text message. (That's where he starts to lose me on the whole "email is bad" thing; morally, what's the difference between text messaging and email? The difference between a vegetarian who also eats chicken and a vegetarian who only eats duck?)

Only 10 percent of the average 200 messages each of the company's 74,000 employees receives every day are useful; about 18 percent are spam, Atos said. Managers spend between five hours and 20 hours per week reading and writing emails.

Visits to Web-based email sites dropped six percent during 2010 according to comScore Media Metrix a statistic CNN uses to assume email is becoming less popular, especially among younger users, who favor text messaging, social networking and other forms of communication instead.

Email is not becoming less popular. Everyone hates it; everyone hated it last year. The hate curve is flat.

Atos CEO Breton is right that it wastes a lot of time and has an unmanageable signal-to-noise ratio.

If only 18 percent of the mail that gets through to employees is spam, Atos' spam filters are doing pretty well.

Of all the Internet email during 2010, 90 percent was spam, according to figures from Symantec; of the 260 billion spam sent every day, six percent contained malware.

Cutting 90 percent down to 18 percent without also routing useful emails into the junk folder is a decent result. Ending up with 20 useful messages per day out of an average of 200 is also right in line with expectations.

According to Sturgeon's Revelation (from science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon), 90 percent of everything is dreck.

So, if 90 percent of the email employees receive is useless, the problem is inherent to communicating with humans, not a problem specific to email.

Unrealistic expectations, failure to communicate

Breton, however, and therefore Atos, view email as a waste of time and a drain on productivity. Breton prefers face-to-face or phone conversations; they're more current than email, more complete and more precise in the meaning each person is trying to convey than email, he said.

Personal conversations waste less time than email, which is often imprecise, inaccurate and insecure, Breton said.

The whole get-rid-of-email idea has some appeal – especially after you've spent an hour deleting a couple of hundred that collected in the Maybe folder because it wasn't clear on first glance if they were all junk or not.

No matter how much you hate your email, pretending personal conversations are more efficient is just silly.

They take longer, for one thing. If you're going to actually speak to someone in real time you have to match velocities and voice-mail statuses:

To have a conversation with every person you need to exchange information with during a day, lots of things have to happen synchronously among people whose schedules and priorities are rarely in sync:

  • The person you want to talk to has to be in the office or off the phone at the same time you want to talk;
  • they have to have enough time available to cover the required ground at the same time you do;
  • they have to know their part about whatever you're talking about already; they can't wait until the meeting actually starts and then start looking up whatever it is they were supposed to bring to the conversation;
  • they have to be concise.
  • They can't yammer on and on, never getting to the point, always going off on tangents, telling little stories or jokes or getting distracted by the coffee or someone walking past in the hall or the phone ringing or a drive-by conversation with someone passing in the hall who stops to join in because it's so rare to catch you and your co-conversationalist both in the same place at the same time, ready and able to talk.

Asynchronicity is the key to productive communication: no matter which medium you use

Email, on the other hand, lets you send questions or answers to someone else on your own schedule, without falling behind on all the extra little jobs you picked up in each wave of layoffs or reorganizations.

You don't have to spend as much time arranging to have a conversation as you do having it. You don't have to follow up by email afterward to ask for copies of the other person's notes, or verify the schedules or plans or whatever it was you were talking about.

You don't have to rely on your fault-prone monkeybrain to remember every detail from a long conversation, type out detailed notes after every chat so all the details are not only recorded, but are searchable as well.

'Replace' and 'get rid of' email do not mean the same thing

Even Breton realizes he can't eliminate email completely.

His plan is to cut out international email first, and migrate the rest of the staff to instant messaging and "Facebook-style" internal web sites, according to the WSJ.

"If people want to talk to me, they can come and visit me, call or send me a text message," Breton told the WSJ. "Emails cannot replace the spoken word."

That's true. They can't replicate the time-wasting yakkery, the problems in synching schedules, access to background information and misunderstandings based on poor language skills, imprecise body language or overly precise but really offensive body language.

People, in person, are the least productive people on Earth. That's why they make all those jokes about the value of committees.

Breton knows this, obviously. He's not actually eliminating electronic messaging, he's only eliminating email.

No email means fewer headaches for sysadmins, not better communication

That's the part of this story that's such a big crock. If you forswear email, but replace it with IM, Facebook updates and discussions on Wiki boards, what exactly have you accomplished?

You've taken yourself out of the flow of spam and malware, for sure.

You've reduced or eliminated the cost and time your IT staff spends keeping the email servers from tangling themselves into hopeless knots for no good reason, or corrupting themselves in ways that make no sense to humans (who, when corrupted, try to do it while having as much fun as possible; corrupt technology just stops doing anything.)

All those things are legitimate complaints about email; they're part of the reason Exchange was one of the first really popular cloud-based services. No one wants to maintain or administer an Exchange server if they can possibly avoid it.

So ditching email does make some sense under some circumstances; it doesn't mean you can go around bragging that you're breaking your company of the email habit as if you've discovered some secret path to true productivity that is available only to those enlightened and spiritually pure enough to give up email.

All you've done is get rid of a particular kind of messaging server; you haven't reinvented communication.

It can save you money and time your people used to spend doing email, but they'll still waste time using the new communication media, not to mention the rest of the Internet.

And you haven't even eliminated email.

No matter how pure its intent, no company can afford to kill off email completely as long as its customers keep using it.

No matter how much you hate email, no matter how justified you are in hating email, pretending you can quit it while actually replacing it with something that serves the same purpose doesn't solve the underlying conflict.

The real problem is not the quality of your email, it's the quality of the people with whom you email. Unless you know a way the rest of us don't about upgrading your customers to a higher grade of human, eliminating their bad email only treats the symptom, not the disease.

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