The dawn of the ‘zero email company?’

20 06 2011

The announcement earlier this year by global software company Atos Origins that it plans to become a “zero email company” by 2014 has sparked much discussion about email and social media as internal communications tools.

In an effort to combat what it calls “information pollution,” Atos will replace its email system with tools such as Microsoft Lync (instant messaging, voice over IP, video conferencing) and Yammer (basically, Twitter for the workplace), as well as social community platforms to share and keep track of ideas from management through to sales.

As it relates to email, it’s unclear what exactly “information pollution” means. But Atos reports that it has been encouraged by the early response to its campaign. William Rice, who heads the team that’s overseeing Atos’ zero email initiative, told Melcrum that the company’s 50,000-pus workforce has begun making better use of instant messaging and other technologies in place of email.

There’s no doubt that internal communicators should take advantage of social media in their efforts to cultivate an inspired, motivated and engaged workforce. Tools such as YouTube, Yammer or a customized social networking site promote community, conversation, and an exchange of ideas.

But does that mean there’s no longer a place for email? Should it be an either-or proposition?

Critics of the zero email theory say there needs to be a channel for communication that is “authoritative” and “official.” They say that social channels carry with them an informality that is sometimes inappropriate. New channels are great, but there needs to be an information anchor that is simple and consistent.

One person who commented on the Melcrum story thinks Atos is making a big mistake:

“What on earth are Atos thinking? Social channels are absolutely terrible for formal, top-down communications, e.g., a note from the CEO on strategy — ends up with lots of chatter, lots of misunderstanding, lots of side discussions, and inevitably, the original meaning becomes muddied…Social media will spiral out of control many times faster than email. My advice to Atos would be to implement a channels protocol — define what channel should be used for what purpose.”

Another person who commented is more open to the idea of a zero email company.

“I think, looking to the future, that the working environment is becoming more flexible and social — companies are offering employees a lifestyle now, not just a way to earn money. So perhaps social media tools are the best channels to supply information to the future workforce as the world of work becomes less rigid and more social itself.”

What are your thoughts on email and social media as internal communication tools? Should companies begin phasing out email, or do you feel that is a mistake at this point?

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8 responses

20 06 2011
Jason Karpf

Remarkable to see email become the “establishment” communication when it was once derided for being too informal and “quick.” An organization must select its own communication tools based on its culture and needs. As more people become comfortable with social applications, their speed and ease will make them the preferred choice. For now, e-mail remains a necessity, especially for c-level execs who may not be used to social media.

20 06 2011
Alex Mitchell

I think your point about assessing your organization’s culture is a good one, Jason. Thank you for sharing.

21 06 2011
Vickie Bates

I know many companies are frustrated with email these days and the “information clutter” it seems to bring on. I agree with Jason and Alex that assessing moves like these in light of company culture is an important step before doing away with any channel. It also might be helpful for corporate communications to use their expertise to help the company and employees manage information effectively (i.e. provide guidelines and tips sheets for using, organizing, saving and deleting email and how to integrate time for email into busy workdays) to avoid clutter in the first place.

23 06 2011
Alex Mitchell

Thanks for sharing, Vickie. The fact that email was once considered too “informal” and “quick” seemingly suggests that social applications will one day be viewed with much less skepticism. I’d say, for now, there’s room for both. The key is providing guidelines for what purpose each channel should serve.

1 07 2011
Tom Keefe

Despite my efforts to encourage the use of alternate communication vehicles, email remains the primary way that communications flow within my company.

As others say, we need to continually try to educate our customers regarding the “best” choices based on desired results and other criteria. It is an ongoing challenge for me, though.

Thanks for posting this, Alex!

1 07 2011
Alex Mitchell

Thanks for sharing, Tom. I think there’s a place for both email and social applications right now, but as the social media generation begins to constitute more and more of the workforce, I wonder if email will still have a place.

3 07 2011
Kamel Mansari

Thanks for the piece Alex. I have found it extremely annoying and weird to notice that the bosses in my company rely so incredibly too much on Microsoft Outlook as the sole reliable communication channel for both internal and external. Of course we do have a printed newsletter and we are now building an intranet. But outlook cracked down for many days last March and there was no other alternative for us to get in touch with the “external world” via MS outlook. We had to use our personal e-mail, phones, SMS to contact our clients. I suggested to the top management that we should envisage a new tool instead of facing similar incidents and try to catch who “failed to prevent it”. Their answer was that an e-mail has more formal impact than a social networking channel or instant massaging and it breaks the “authoritative barriers” between the C-level and the rest of the employees.
I believe if people are hesitant to get rid of e-mails, it would be interesting to figure out an e-mail that can include a social network like yammer.

5 07 2011
Alex Mitchell

Hi, Kamel. As far as corresponding with clients, I don’t think companies do much of that with social tools. In most cases, email, phone and in-person are best for that. However, companies can definitely use social media to promote their business or make prospective clients aware of them. Social media are good for keeping an informal conversation going with publics — staying on their minds, and listening to them. But if you want to talk to one of your customers about something specific regarding his/her company’s account, email, phone or — best yet — in person are the way to go.

In the case of the zero-email company, the goal with that is to phase out email as an internal communications tool. I assume that when a company like Atos does away with internal email, it might still communicate with clients via email, or if not, it will rely primarily on the phone, or even video conferencing.

Thanks for your thoughts. Good luck with your company!

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