Banning Email Isn't the Answer

Bill Wickett tweeted a link to a story from the Daily Mail on Atos banning email for internal communication. He asked what I thought, so here we are.

Considering that email is the primary method of getting work done for most, this is a pretty significant step and I think it’s the wrong move.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate email as much as the next guy. The problem is, email has something that IM, Facebook (at least in business), and Google chat don’t:

Traction

Email is the dominant method of communication for anyone trying to get work done. This doesn’t make it the best tool for the job, but it’s the one we’re stuck with for now. It has traction. It’s impossible to force a shift upon a large group of people through directives from the CEO. These things happen oganically, much like how we came to rely on email.

We use email for things that it was never intended for. Attachments are a great example. Sending files (large or small) is not something that email is great at. Each user ends up with multiple copies of attachments littered across their computers. Versions, changes and updates are a disaster. Are there better tools for sharing and collborating with files? Yes. Does anyone use them? No. At least not enough people use a single tool to give it any traction (see Google Wave).

Email is the de facto standard. All you need is another person’s email address and you can reach them. You don’t need an account or an app. That’s what keeps email on top.

It’s great that the CEO of Atos thinks he can force his entire company to stop using email internally, but at the end of the day, each and every employee still needs email to reach anyone outside of the company. Since they’ve still got their email address and workflow in place, it’s not going to be easy (short of a technical block) to stop internal email.

A better solution would be…

Education

Large firms love training the crap out of their employees. Workplace safety, accessibility, customer service, WHMIS…the list goes on and on. Employees might even get training on how to use the voicemail system. When it comes to email, most get an exchange account, Outlook and little else.

At first, the idea of teaching someone how to do email seems ridiculous, but stop and think about it for a minute. How many things about how other people use email annoy you? Background images? Images in signature blocks? Weird fonts? Those are the easy ones.

What about using CC too much? Unnecessary emails? “Thank you” emails? There are hundreds of examples. Beyond the basics, there are things like respecting others’ time and attention. Not enough people even consider things like thinking about how pressing send is going to affect the person on the receiving end.

For something that occupies so much of our time and is not on any job description, email gets very little attention.

I’m not suggesting that sticking employees in a room for a day and reviewing the do’s and don’t do’s of email will solve the problem of inbox overload. It’s a bigger issue. I am suggesting that creating an open discussion and culture around how a company communicates would make a massive difference. Let staff watch a Merlin Mann video on time and attention or Inbox Zero and go from there.

Even the most basic discussion would raise the level of…

Literacy

Success in anything is about literacy. I purposefully left of “technical” from in front of “literacy” because comfort and familiarity with technology is now on the same level as reading, writing and math. To thrive, you must know how to do stuff with computers.

Becoming literate requires time, focus and effort. It also requires context, understanding of the bigger picture and a healthy does of critical thought. All of these things are lacking in our use of digital communication and all suffer as a result.

Banning email isn’t the answer. More efficient digital communication will come from all of us taking the time to think about what we’re doing and how we do it.

How literate are you? How literate is your organization? What are you going to do about it?