Designing out email

A couple of weeks ago I emailed an 18 year old and heard nothing back. It was about a job which she'd applied for. But last week I did hear back from her. She said 'I haven't been checking my email recently and have only just received this so I understand if it is too late now.' We met and I found out that she doesn't really use email. She uses text messages and Facebook to interact with people.

Coincidentally last week someone set me a short Don Tapscott video where he talks about the way workplaces will have to change if they want to attract and retain this 'net generation' – those born between 1977 and 1997. It's well worth listening to. He paints a picture of multitasking that I can't get close to mimicking. Net people are simultaneously texting incessantly, surfing the Web, finding directions, taking pictures, making videos, collaborating, using Facebook, instant messaging, skyping, playing on-line games, and all with the TV as background muzak. Email isn't even on the radar and they're not actually talking face to face as I read it.

This maybe why that experimental Faraday cafe in Vancouver with walls that don't allow signals to penetrate might be extremely successful – but perhaps not with the net generation? In that cafe 'Conversation is possible (or forced) because there is no cellphone service or Wi-Fi at the cafe. Customers sit in a carefully constructed dead-zone, an eight-by-16-foot cage made of wire mesh. Phone and Internet signals can't pass through the cage walls. The coffee is freshly ground, and patrons pay by donation.'

But given that one cafe in Vancouver is not going to change the social norms of an entire generation, let's make assumption that the net generation lifestyle is going to be the 'new normal' for people entering the workforce. On this, I think Tapscott lays out a good challenge to all organisations. He asks how to design organisations that provide more learning opportunities, frequent feedback, greater work/life balance, stronger workplace relationships, replacement of job descriptions with work goals, tools to do the job and the latitude and guidance to get on and do it in their way. He posed this challenge in 2008 – the challenge has got bigger and more pressing since then as more of the net generation, at least those with the skills employers want, are entering the work-force. (Take a look at this World Bank blog for figures on youth unemployment.)

If it's true that a growing proportion of the workforce is not using email in their personal interactions what happens when they join an organisation where email is the principal channel for information flow? Does the organisation have to be redesigned to eliminate email or do the net generation members have to be taught to just buckle down and use it? Or is there some middle road?

The vice-chancellor of Exeter University takes the view that email is as good as dead. That organisation realising that 'most students no longer checked their emails regularly and were choosing to tweet for help rather than wait for a response in their inbox' introduced a 'round-the-clock team of press officers and graduates savvy with social media,' to monitor questions and give immediate responses because responding by email is 'too slow'. What I couldn't find out is whether the university employees still communicate via email amongst themselves, and the social media approach is just to their customers, or whether the whole University operation is weaning itself off email. If anyone knows I'd be happy to hear from them.

There are pros and cons for redesigning email out of the organisation. The Economist had a piece last week on Decluttering the company making the case for fighting a 'relentless battle against bureaucracy' which they think is induced by three forms of clutter:

  1. complexity which includes tiers of management, co-ordinating bodies, and too many corporate objectives
  2. meetings
  3. emails

On emails the point is made that 'the number of external communications that managers receive has increased from about 1,000 a year in 1970 to around 30,000 today. Every message imposes a "time tax" on the people at either end of it; and these taxes can spiral out of control unless they are managed.' So emails are hugely expensive.

An HBR blog makes a similar cost point but in relation to the drive to constantly monitor the emails 'Shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we're monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves. And all those transitional costs add up'.

So what about the collaborative platforms that software like Sharepoint, Huddle, and Asana say is more effective and less costly than emails? Facebook's co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz, now CEO Asana is somewhat persuasive on the death of email. Also he has, in my opinion, the right attitude to organisation design. Asana 'embraces the notion that companies should be organized around the "work graph" not the social graph — around the work that needs to be done, not the people. The nodes in a companies' network should be important tasks, not employees.' Because email is person to person it reinforces a people as nodes approach to getting things done and not a work as nodes approach to getting things done.

I've just participated in a Huddle work project. (See a comparison of Huddle and Asana here). It worked well in that the project arrived to time and with good enough levels of participation. What I found interesting was that some of the participants actually did the work outside the Huddle platform and via email!

This is where the defenders of email are loud and also persuasive. Read the piece Need a Collaboration Tool? Try Email. The author is Jeff Mackanic. (Take a look at his photo. Do you think he was born between 1977 and 1997?). He is of the view that Email 'is still the best collaboration tool. Nothing else is even close'. Another defender (whom Mackanic refers to) is Barry Gill, author of Vision statement: Email not dead evolving. He tells us that

Periodically you may hear digital hipsters claim that e-mail is dead. Don't believe them. People still spend half their workday dealing with it, they trust it, and overall they're satisfied with it, according to our 2012 survey of 2,600 workers in the U.S., UK, and South Africa who use e-mail every day. … And for all the love social media get, e-mail is still workers' most effective collaboration tool. It's far from perfect: … But it remains the mule of the information age-—stubborn and strong.

Hmm, are the 'digital hipsters' the net generation, and the email defenders the 'stubborn and strong' executive managers? Or maybe there are vested interests at play. After all the CEO of Asana is trying to sell a collaboration tool to use instead of email (but he was born on May 22, 1984 so is of the net generation) and Barry Gill author of the quote above works for Mimecast – an organisation that helps other organisations manage email. (Barry Gill's photo is on the Mimecast website if you want to guess his age).

On the survey Mimecast did I'd like to know the age profile and hierarchical position of the 2,600 respondents. Because if they were the older finance or IT guys, for example, those who'd grown up with email they'd realize that, as Marcus Wohlsen says in the Asana piece "in a corporate culture where upgrading Windows can be an epic undertaking, few companies have the wherewithal to let go of something as basic as email, let alone reimagine the basic premise of how they function in order to move ahead without it." they'd probably prefer to stick with email than invest in the many high costs of designing it out.

So we have defenders of email, and defenders of collaborative platforms who say email is dead. We also have the net generation who are in the workforce and entering it who apparently don't use email out of work and wonder why they should use it in the workplace. So should we be designing out email? What's your view? Let me know (by text or Twitter).

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