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Being a recent arrival to the hilly city by the sea that is Brighton, England, IBF dispatched me off to the Meaning conference, organized by Nixon-McInnes. The conference was aiming to look at the future of business, and specifically how can business do and be better. I packed my conference iPad, dropped the kids at school and ambled into town. “Write us a few blog posts.” It was a fascinating day with an engaging and almost clashing mix of speakers.

Meaning_LuisSuarez
Luis Suarez from IBM at the Meaning Conference in Brighton [photo: Nixon-McInnes under a CC-NC-ND licence].

Last up on the day was Luis Suarez (@elsua), from IBM (not the footballer). Luis is famous for being the man at IBM, one of the largest vendors of corporate email, that gave up email. Four years ago, he came back from holiday and when looking at the horrors of his inbox felt that he’d had enough. So he decided to stop using email. If someone emails him, he responds using an internal or external social networking system. I’ll let Luis explain further.

Luis was asked how he got people to buy into the idea: “I plant it into people’s brain like that film ‘Inception’. It becomes their idea! When you take to time to train people, to use a file sharing service or a social network, you get your time back.”

But wasn’t he replacing one tech with another? “When you communicate in public you don’t tolerate nonsense – people’s behaviours change with the medium. In fact customers are happy to drop email and I interact with customers on Google+ and Twitter.”

Luis gave two top tips for unilaterally reducing your use of email:

“For today stop responding to email as it is a vicious cycle. Break the chain and when you receive an email respond through your social networks.”

“Then find out how addicted you are to email and find out what sort of emailer are you. Take a piece of paper and draw three columns, and in the first column put your personal use cases for email. Then map these against the methods you have available to you in second column. For the third column you put your personal business benefit. For example at IBM we have mail quotas that force me into 3 hours housekeeping a week if I send file attachments. So write: Share files > use file share > spend 3 hours instead talking to customers.”

The flavour of the day at Meaning had been the immense power of small and personal actions. Luis’ demonstration that the adoption of social tools in the enterprise and the rejection of old ways of working fitted in very well. This is something that is often missed in the intranet world and as a benchmarker I often hear sad tales of social and collaboration platforms struggling as employees stay in the ruts of old habits.

Graph of exponential growth of computing power since the fall of USSR

Slide from Vinay Gupta’s presentation showing that exponential growth can look static until things go crazy. Download slides [PDF 4.7MB]

We’d earlier heard from doomsday thinker and futurist Vinay Gupta (@leashless) who had brilliantly explained the modern world in terms of exponential growth curves. When something keeps doubling in size it can look kind of static for a long time and then everything goes completely crazy — suddenly everyone is doing something that only the wild-eyed extremists were doing for ages. I think, and hope, that Luis’ vision of email being returned to a notification mechanism might be realized. Before you know it, everyone will be doing it. So the next time you get an email from someone, back at to them on Yammer, OK?

About the author

Chris Tubb is an intranet and digital workplace consultant and a lead benchmarker for IBF in the Management Benchmarking Areas. He is also an analyst, blogger and research associate across the Digital Workplace Group of businesses and has published research papers on operational intranets and intranet measurement. Chris was formerly responsible for Intranet strategy and architecture at both Orange SA and France Telecom Group, where he gained an intense dislike of business travel. His work interests include governance, strategy, metrics, flexible and co-working, the future of work and the intersection of technology with, um, everything. He occasionally twitters @christubb.

12 Comments

  1. People on our virtual teams training courses tell us that over 75% of their e-mails are irrelevant. It’s a problem with “push” communication, it’s based on what the sender thinks is important but interrupts us from our tasks and takes our attention.

    Social media should help us to filter what is important and allow us to “pull” the things that we are interested in, when we are interested in them.

    But should we allow social media to interrupt us? Or is that a role best suited to some kind of instant messaging system for people we trust to come to us with things that are important?

    Reply
    • Kevan,

      I think what Luis demonstrates is that the key is having the control in the hands of the individual. Luis has chosen to work in a certain way – he won’t be interrupted by his social networks as they are asynchronous. Similarly instant messaging is fine as long as you have the control (you are not scared to show you are not available) to switch to DO NOT DISTURB

      Reply
    • @Kevan, I think you would need to make a distinction between social media, i.e. the tools and the networks that make use of the tools. They are two completely different things. Collaborative filtering is a key capability from trusted networks that one gets to build over the course of years and which then helps to reduce the noise down to almost zero and just keep the signals coming along, to the point where they become essential helping us achieve another massive goal: reduce interruptions, merely because that openness and transparency helps people understand the new expectations that need to be set up and it is is something that we should not forget. The more we all get to “narrate our work”, the easier it would be come to not just manage flows, but also to reduce the interruptions to almost a minimum therefore making up for more effectiveness and efficiency altogether. The key message here is to try to cultivate and nurture a rather powerful network that could be enhanced to perform those various different tasks.

      Reply
  2. Email is just one tool we use. And nearly everyone company I would say (fantastic generalisation there with no evidence whatsoever!) has not shown people how to use email effectively. Did you ever receive training in relation to email?

    Using social media tools in the enterprise might stop the clutter but I remain to be convinced. People want to be seen to be involved or contributing. Whether that is covering their a** or showing how smart/dumb they are then they will use whatever tool is available to do that.

    Reply
    • Andrew,

      Luis’ point is that people are less likely to engage the rather negative political and almost antisocial behaviours that email seems to promote, if they are conducting their interaction on a social network. That indeed leads into a whole other range of negative behaviours (!) such as digital presenteeism and social network reputation building. Luis didn’t feel that was a problem to worry about now, considering the scale of email dysfunction.

      Reply
    • @Andrew, ABSOLUTELY! In fact, I would dare to claim that over the last 10 to 15 years there hasn’t been much education / enablement on making proper use of email as a communication AND collaboration tool. And the fact we keep struggling with email today surely confirms that we are enjoying far too many bad habits that good training and enablement would have avoided it, but that we never care enough to make it happen. Sadly.

      On your last reflection, I believe you are missing a critical element that’s worth while the whole effort altogether: merit and reputation. Specially, earning the merit of others from your contributions to help develop that eminence. People want to contribute, indeed, but the real perk comes from adding value to those conversations to keep earning the merit of the networks and it’s just that very same merit the one that’s going to regulate those various behaviours you hinted above, because more than anything everyone can see everything now and such bad habits / attitudes would be spotted within a matter of minutes and acted upon altogether, as well. It’s all part of that mantra of narrating your work and making smarter use of the tools at your disposal.

      Reply
  3. Email is not the problem.

    There are four problems that result in email-related pain:

    #1: Lack of appropriate tools – For too long email has been the primary form of digital communication within companies. Email is useful and was an incredible innovation. So was the screwdriver, but we don’t use screw drivers to pound nails. Within a company employees need a set of communications tools that spans the spectrum from synchronous-to-asynchronous. This set of tools also needs to scale, from one-on-one conversations to group conversations to broadcast messages.

    #2: Unclear decision-making processes & responsibilities – This is a huge cause of irrelevant emails and companies struggle with this almost universally. Without crystal clear responsibilities people copy every colleague who might want to have some input.

    #3: Communication styles that work poorly in a digital world – Have you ever received a long email, read through the whole thing and still not known what someone was asking of you? People often write elaborate explanations and hide their action-oriented requests in the middle of the second-to-last paragraph. Imagine if the first two lines of any email clearly stated the “call to action.” Almost unfathomable.

    #4: Poor team meeting habits – A team that meets regularly and has a place to aggregate important decision issues can massively cut down on emails. But many of us operate in an “everything is an emergency” way. We think every issue has to be dealt with immediately so we send emails. The richer conversational format of a phone call or meeting can deal with decisions much better than email, but teams rarely have the discipline to do this well.

    It’s important to realize that human issues sit behind the technological pains we associate with email. Changing the technology used for communication can have an impact. But that’s only part of the story.

    I’ll be Louis spends a ton of time keeping up with the many social channels through which his conversations take place.

    Reply
    • @Ephraim, very interesting reflections and some very good points all in all resulting in what I have been saying all along that email, per se, is not such a bad communication tool, but, alas, it’s a horrendous collaboration tool, because it lacks some of the key principles behind collaboration: openness and transparency. Either way, the issue is not with email as a tool, as a medium, but with the consistent abuse that we have been putting to good use through email to kill our very own productivity. Therefore the move from email into open social networks, hasn’t got anything with changing the technology used, but with inspiring new behaviors, new habits, where people don’t protect their knowledge and experiences, where they don’t hoard what they know, where they no longer live by the mantras “Information / Knowledge is power” or “Need to know” basis knowledge sharing, but instead they open up, collaborate, share their knowledge out there and eventually try to help others overcome their own business problems. That’s something that email doesn’t do, for sure, and doubt it would ever do.

      To your question on this paragraph: “I’ll be Louis spends a ton of time keeping up with the many social channels through which his conversations take place”, that’s actually not the case and I am surely glad you are throwing it out there, because throughout this year I have been doing a new experiment, while I am taking some research data from McKinsey where they confirmed last year how, on average, we spend about 650 hours per year doing just email. That’s roughly about 3.5 months per year on a good month. Then from my own use of internal social networkings tools I have been applying the Pomodoro Technique and establishing periods of time, well defined, where nothing else happens and have got that timing for about 25 minutes at a time, for each pomodoro.

      Well, this year, I haven’t blogged about it, since I feel it needs a bit of fine tuning, but I have been able to confirm that using the pomodoro technique throughout the whole year I have been spending about 26 days on a monthly basis to handle all of my social interactions internally. Now, I’m a power user of social networks, so that time could be even lower, if needed to!, for most knowledge workers out there. But the interesting thing is how using social networking tools can help you save up to twice the time you would spend for other tasks, and that can only be a good thing to keep making you more effective and instead spend that time with customer prospects, or whatever else.

      So handling social channels can, indeed, be much more *effective* with up to 2/3 of productivity savings, and within the first 5 weeks of ditching corporate email. Not sure what you would think, but that’s not too bad, I would think :)

      Reply
  4. I agree with EphraimJF, what Luis needs help. He should have an effective spam filter. He should also divert regular emails,, such as newsletters, into individual folders. He needs an email client that keeps exchanges in threads. Do all this and then emails are not a problem!

    Social networking is not the solution – it simply diverts the volume to another medium. We are now being deluged with these messages instead! And the back history of message exchanges, in most instances, is very poorly managed, or lost for ever.

    As I work for an email service company IndustryMailout I can assure you that email distribution is growing and not declining. Because it works! People like emails – apart from convenience and simplicity, the system serves as a single office filing cabinet too.

    I doubt that Luis was reflecting the corporate views of the use of email on behalf of IBM.

    Large corporates such as Microsoft, Google, Apple and IBM should be working to eliminate email spam. It’s a sad indictment of both the industry and governments that it has persisted so long.

    Malcolm Davison

    Reply
    • @Malcolm, I am afraid Luis does not need help. Currently, with 15 emails received per week, i.e. 2 a day, I don’t need to have an effective spam filter, which I do and works wonders. I have unsubscribed from newsletters over 4.5 years and I still have got to see the first piece of info contained in them that I could reuse further and use it. That “To Read Later” folder never works. We hardly ever visit it, so why bother? I don’t need an email client that keeps exchanges in threads, since the conversations are already happening in social networks out there and *everyone* can see them, not just me. I don’t do that any of them, and indeed email is no longer a problem. Why, because I don’t use it and those around me don’t use it either!

      Social networking is not the solution, indeed. I have never said that, pretty much like I have never said, nor written, that email is dead and we need to kill it. Quite the opposite. There are still some really good use cases that email is good for: universal identity, calendaring and scheduling of events and, lastly, 1:1 confidential exchanges of a sensitive nature. For the rest, there is no excuse that almost everything should be out there!

      RE: Volume, see the comments I mentioned above for Ephraim, where I have been running another experiment where I have been able to confirm how on average, according to McKinsey, we spend about 650 hours per year to just process email and I’m currently using about 26 days and counting… for all of my internal social networking interactions. That’s 2/3 of productivity savings right there, I am afraid. Read above for some more details on the methodology.

      Oh, by the way, I would love for email service companies to start making the distinction between regular email, as a content repository of sorts, and BACN, i.e. email notifications of content stored elsewhere in social networking tools, because somehow I suspect that the number of emails as content repositories has declined alarming to the point of substantially disappearing from the corporate world. I’m already myself on 98% reduction and bet I’m not the only one.

      Unfortunately, single office fail cabinets don’t work well for us humans. According to some scientific, cognitive research our human brains function in fragments where we can process information much faster and much clearer than through a single entry point, so eventually we have been “cheating” on ourselves, because it’s the context the one that defines the interaction, and not the tool. Just for that reason alone we should start diversifying our interactions, instead of just relying on a single tool for everything. Better for our brains, better for us.

      RE: “I doubt that Luis was reflecting the corporate views of the use of email on behalf of IBM” < Perhaps not for the entire IBM Corporation as in the corporation itself, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of fellow IBMers, who are doing the very same exact thing I'm doing, and all the way to the top, and without questioning the validity of the initiative or not, since a bunch of us have proved the benefits and additional value add that it could incorporate on how we do work.

      So much so that if you go into http://www.outsidetheinbox.eu/en you will be able to go through the official IBM European campaign for Social Business where I'm featured as their public avatar for the campaign, so not sure what you would think, but I can imagine how those corporate views are shifting and changing to find new ways of working using social technologies.

      RE: Spam, I know IBM is. Like I said I still use 2% of email interactions and it's been MONTHS since the last piece of spam email I have received in my work Inbox, so the spam filter is there and works like a charm, not that it would be a problem for me, since I no longer rely on email.

      Reply
  5. Hi Chris, thanks a lot for putting together this very insightful blog post with all of the various insights from the Meaning Conference, along with the highlights from my session. Very helpful and glad your readers had a chance to go through it as well as leave some very interesting and insightful commentary. I am currently on the road, finishing up a conference event, but I thought I would go ahead and take a few minutes to share some further insights that I could add relating a bit more of the experience, in in the first person, hoping to add my ¢2. Let´s see …

    Reply
  6. I think is all about discipline. It depends how we classify the way we handle our virtual communication. using the e-mail for business and social purpose should be understand for everyone. everyone of us have a different type of audiences therefore the types of communication we choice should be reflect on the audiences.

    Reply

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