My week without email

Many of the advocates of social business see email as the Great-Evil-That-Must-Be-Defeated. I completely believe with the stated benefits of more open communication and pooling collective knowledge, but I have never been particularly fanatical about the banishment of email. I believe there is still a time and a place for it, and that many people simply blame email for their own poor communication habits.

But most people who discuss this subject are talking purely theoretically – they haven’t tried giving up email. Of course, there are exceptions to this, most notably Luis Suarez and (coincidentally) there was much coverage of Atos’s ban of internal email recently.

So last week I tried it myself. The rule was very simple – I didn’t allow myself to send (or reply to) any internal company emails. Instead, I would communicate solely through BroadVision Connect (our internal implementation of Clearvale). I warned people about this in advance via a blog post, and set my email autoreply to remind people of this.

To get straight to the conclusion – I found it very easy. What I’m not so sure of is how easy it was for the other people I work.

First, some numbers to put this in perspective. As a very active user of social networking tools, my email volumes have already decreased significantly. I received a total of just 132 messages between Monday and Friday – less than 30 per day. Of these, 35 were real messages from other people inside the company, the rest being a mixture of spam and bacn.

Only 5 of these 35 were sent solely to me; the rest were wider discussions that I was cc-ed on. Since the introduction of Clearvale, we have a lot fewer of these group discussions by email. Those that remain tend to be either initiated by newer employees (who we haven’t successfully brainwashed into enterprise social networking yet!), or are of a more ephemeral nature (e.g. “meeting delayed due to car fire on the US-101”). They definitely represent the tail-end of company communication though.

But what is most interesting is the mechanisms people used to contact me directly. Some people sent instant messages on Skype (despite me also stating that I was not replying to these either; in my view, these are often worse than email – more disruptive and even less social). Some people sent me direct messages on Clearvale. Others wrote notes on my profile page (Clearvale’s equivalent of Facebook’s wall). Some people assigned me Clearvale tasks. Fully-featured enterprise social networks offer a lot of different communication mechanisms, and different people used different mechanisms to contact me.

Some people obviously found this inconvenient – one comment I received was:

“I think it’s going to be hard for some people to perform basic work functions that involve you, e.g. setting up meetings via Outlook.”

It’s certainly true that managing meeting requests was the hardest part of living without email. Exchange’s calendar is so closely tied to email, it makes it difficult to abandon email entirely. Actually, as a Mac user connecting to Exchange via iCal and DavMail, I was able to accept and decline meeting requests directly in iCal without sending email (the meeting organizer may have received an email from me, but Exchange sent that, not me). What was harder was explaining why I had declined a meeting – I had to send my explanation of this in a separate message on Clearvale. So it’s really not practical for Exchange users to abandon email just yet, because of the calendar.

My overwhelming feeling is that my week off email was harder for the people I work with than it was for me. This suggests two things to me:

  • once you have started to move your communication to an enterprise social network, moving the tail-end of it from email is easy
  • making the move unilaterally causes problems for other people, so you really need to make the move together

Did I find my working life more efficient without email? To be honest, no, not really. I was already so far down the line of moving away from internal email that the difference was not that noticeable. There were times when my self-imposed ban was inconvenient, both for me and others, and there were messages I received on Clearvale which would have been perfectly OK to receive by email.

My view is very much the same as it was at the start of the week. It’s neither practical nor necessary to completely eradicate internal email. Instead, we should concentrate on getting group discussions out of email, and onto enterprise social networks, thereby reducing email to person-to-person messages that it is well-suited for and a tail-end of ephemeral and unimportant discussions. We need to highlight the benefits of moving discussions to a more social environment, and let email use fade away naturally, rather than risk alienating users with an email ban.

So I shall continue to answer emails as long as people send them to me… but I reserve the right to berate (sorry, “politely discourage”) the sender if they are failing to take advantage of holding the discussion in a more social environment.