Life Without E-mail No Longer Just a Fantasy

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Tips on Controlling Your E-mail So It Doesn't Control You

Many of us fantasize about doing without e-mail. Yet we find it a tough habit to break. Very tough.


I always said I wouldn't become one of "those people" who checks e-mail during vacations. I'm not exactly a high-powered executive, I figured, so how hard could it be to abstain for a week? Yet I usually check e-mail at least once, perhaps mid-week, to lessen the amount of mail waiting in my inbox when I get back. If I don't do this, I spend an entire day dealing with messages upon my return.


Yet more of us are fantasizing about an e-mail-free existence, thanks to the growth ofsocial software that promises to reduce the volume of e-mail. Every person I've ever interviewed about their use of social software, including FinancialForce.com CEO Jeremy Roche, who spoke to me about Salesforce.com's Chatter, has cited the software's ability to stanch the flow of e-mail as a big positive. The transparency of social software offers benefits not possible in e-mail, three of which I mentioned in a post in which I shared a Capgemini consultant's take on the company's use of Yammer.


More recently, I wrote about the concept of "no e-mail Fridays," during which companies ask employees to actually interact with their coworkers instead of letting e-mail do all of their communicating for them.


Still, as much as we might like the idea, it's hard for most of us to envision what a workplace without e-mail would be like. How would we get our jobs done?


A short video with IBM employee Luis Suarez, included in a post on the Tribal Impact blog, offers a pretty tantalizing glimpse. Suarez decided to drop e-mail after he realized it was "making everyone but me more productive." He now communicates with coworkers, clients and partners via internal communities or external ones like Facebook and Twitter.


(He describes IBM as an "e-mail driven company," but I know IBM also encourages its employees to use the many social tools it sells to other companies. Big Blue seems generally amenable to enterprise social networking, which gave Suarez an advantage others might not have in doing away with e-mail.)


Over the past nine months, Suarez went from receiving 30 to 40 e-mails a day to getting 20 to 30 a week, most of which are meeting notices and similar calendar-type messages. He says he doesn't miss the "political games of CC and BCC" or the "locked and private" nature of e-mail. He says the biggest benefit is that he's "more passionate" about his work, thanks to the "feeling of contribution" he gets from his various communities.


Supportive corporate environment or not, Suarez tells the audience he's addressing in the video that 'you need to be the ones challenging [the usual way of doing things]." He suggests going to the communities filled with folks you trust, as those are the connections that will be most helpful to you in your work. Begin increasing the flow of communication through those communities while reducing the flow occurring via e-mail.


It will be easier if your employer also makes a conscious decision to reduce its reliance on e-mail. That's exactly what IT services company Atos Origin is doing, as detailed in a Computer Business Review article. In an interesting analogy, Atos CEO and Chairman Thierry Breton calls e-mail "information pollution" and compares it to the industrial pollution that spewed freely out of smokestacks before companies (let's face it, prodded by the government) took actions to reverse it. The article quotes Breton:


The volume of e-mails we send and receive is unsustainable for business, with managers spending between 5 and 20 hours a week reading and writing e-mails... We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives. [So] we are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organizations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.


Though the article doesn't mention specific platforms, Atos has apparently already introduced collaboration tools that have reduced e-mail volume by 20 percent. It hopes to become "a zero e-mail company" within three years.


That's probably an overly optimistic goal, given how much most of us still rely on e-mail today. But, as Suarez says in the video, the effort has to start somewhere. The bottom-up approach he references is certainly the one most often mentioned by social software vendors. (That's beginning to change a bit, thanks to tools like Tibco's tibbr and Appian's Tempo that stress more overt IT involvement.) But I think executive support can make a positive difference in social adoption, much as it does with other technology-driven changes to the work environment.