Nov 30, 2011

Forbidding email is not a solution*

There's been news flying around that some companies are abandoning email. Atos Origin for example is going so far that they are forbidding email totally according to Computer world. I've seen many similar news from other sources also, claiming that big bunch of emails are waste. I have to say I second that, majority of emails are waste. There's no question about that. What's worrying me, is the proposed solution to that problem.

In organizations, there's natural demand to communicate clearly to large groups. Often the sender of the message can't be sure whom all would benefit from the information in the message. This causes, that many of the emails have receivers who are not interested about the subject. This then starts to cumulate, when people in the mail chain start to answer and will not drop anyone out from the mail chain, due to they are not sure why the people was there in the first place. From both of these, there comes the waste.

Solution for the waste problem doesn't go away with new tools like social networks, intranet feeds, wiki's and instant messaging chats although the problem does change a bit with these tools. With these people need to themselves tune in to the forums they think are relevant for them. This will cause at the end that people are tuning in to all news sources they think might be relevant for them. This then will cause the same information overflow as with email quite soon. And at the end it might be, that people will use even more time with these new tools than used with traditional email for example.

Don't get me wrong, these new tools, IM, Social Networks, Wiki's and whatever are really essential for any company to communicate better. These just will never replace email. There is a need and place for all of these. Problem isn't in any of the tools, but with the people using those. With short and effective trainings, people would learn to use right tools for right communication. There are always subjects that go best with email or social networks and subjects that require more rapid feedback either face to face or with IM.

Also there's the second thing. Tools rarely work when forced. Tools which are irrelevant will die away when there are better ones available. Tools that add value, will find the way to be used. For example forbidding the use of email, will make people angry and frustrated. Offering better tools for communication and letting people to find the benefits themselves, will cut some of the email communication automatically.

The real problem with communication, isn't in any of the tools. Noise is the real problem, not email or any other tool. Learning to cope with noise is a skill that should be taught and learned in all organizations. It's a new skill in a history of mankind, but it's a really important skill for the knowledge workers of today. And noise isn't going away anytime soon, but it will keep increasing, because sharing information is getting easier all the time.

Solution to noise is always changing the behavior of the people, not changing the tools. Offering new tools and ways to use old tools can help with noise, but only if person understands and agrees that noise exists. In modern organizations everyone should learn to cope with noise and at some point also to reduce the noise they are making. And at the end, even noise isn't the real problem, it's the lack of skill to cope with it.

* Title was changed from "Don't blame email for the noise" to the current 1.12.2011

Written by +Henri Hämäläinen

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