Misdiagnosing the email malaise

A zero email policy for internal communications is never going to work unless we are also willing to dismantle the mountain of bureaucracy that feeds the volumes of mail clogging up our in-boxes.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Atos’ CEO Theirry Breton’s plan to implement a zero email policy for internal communications. According to Breton, only 10 per cent of emails received per day are useful. 18 per cent of all email is spam. I’m curious – what percentage of emails generated internally are deemed as being useless by the people sending them? I’m guessing that would be something closer to zero.

I’m not being flippant. I think that’s the crux of the problem. While I applaud Breton’s desire to increase productivity and to reduce the encroachment of work into people’s personal lives, I’m afraid he’s misdiagnosed the problem.

The problem with email today is not an ever-decreasing signal-to-noise ratio. Spam filters are doing a pretty good job. And while I concede that I certainly get a lot of unimportant emails every day, I find it takes me no more than 30 minutes to clear the rubbish out. I’d rather spend my 30 minutes doing that than waste it sitting in a meeting room getting nothing done at all. And, prior to the world of email that’s what we spent our time doing. The most common phrase uttered in the 90’s across work cubicles the world over was – “skip the meeting, send an email.” Email emerged as the centrepiece of collaboration and workflow for good reason.

The problem with email is not the volume we see each morning, it’s the stuff left over after it’s been cleared out. It’s the list of things we can’t avoid doing. And that list keeps getting bigger. That’s the true essence of most people’s complaints about email. It’s not a volume problem. It’s an obligation problem. Email “in-boxes” have become a misnomer. What we have are email “to do lists.” Woe unto the person that doesn’t stay on top of their email – whether it’s on holidays, at dinner, or on a date. For that person faces a stress-inducing mountain of obligations when they eventually have the heart to log onto their email account(s).

The essence of the email problem is that a global asynchronous one-to-one/one-to-many communication system radically increases the ability of people to seek assistance, create and delegate tasks, update colleagues and coordinate activities.

There is no technology solution to this problem. You can try to parse this out into different applications but the problem remains – as I believe Atos will soon find out.

The only solution, IMO, is to tackle the ballooning administration and bureaucracy in organisations that fuels the number of emails being generated. Specifically, our criticism of email as a collaboration tool needs to shift towards the unchecked growth of bureaucracy it enables. And in this context, it is but one piece of IT that is driving the problem. Ask sales reps what they think of CRM. It doesn’t increase their productivity – it drains it as they have to spend increasing amounts of time filling in the system which, in turn, generates more email requests. BPM can standardise best practices – it can also spin out a set of obligations which land in people’s inbox. Every exception to these practices requires streams of emails to associated cc lists, forwards and reply-to-alls.

There are parallels with the argument “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Email doesn’t erode productivity and encroaches work into our personal lives, bureaucracy does.”

So don’t fault the tool. Fault what it enables.

Brian Prentice is a research vice president with Gartner where he focuses on emerging technologies and trends with an emphasis on those that impact an organisation's software and application strategy.