is Email a necessary or Unnecessary evil? (interview with IBM’s Luis Suarez)

email - luis suarez

I have been a long time fan of Luis Suarez whom I was supposed to meet at the Enterprise 2.0 summit except that my clients decided otherwise. Fortunately, I was able to reach out to Luis and send him, ironically, my questions via email.

That’s my point precisely. Email is one of those necessary evils. A system which is broken but difficult to break away from. At least, this is my perception. I have managed, over the years, to cut through the clutter… yet, I have never managed to do away with email completely.

Even worse, whenever I spread the good news that one doesn’t have to use email and that other solutions exist, there is always at least one person in the room who takes it personally and gets very very cross. It happened to me again last Monday after a lecture at HEC, while we were all having lunch. There was only one person around the table who seemed very angry with me but it got me thinking. Why would people be so in love with e-mail. Is it because this is the only online system which is close enough to the old world and mimics – vaguely – traditional letter writing?

Well, I don’t know. So I turned to Suarez instead, a man who is supposed to have turned off his mail reader completely … except for my questions. Good man!

photo by Londonbloggers

Doing away with email: Interview with Luis Suarez

1. You have been heralded as a no-email evangelist. How and why did you decide to do that?

I initially started this journey of Life Without eMail over six years ago (On February 2008) and, mainly, for three different reasons:

1. Over the course of time you realise that e-mail is not really a good collaboration and knowledge sharing tool. Quite the opposite. It’s today’s productivity killer, not necessarily because of the system itself, but more than anything else because of how we have abused it over the course of time resulting in all sorts of political games, bullying, managing up (or down), and overall unnecessary stress seeing how plenty of people keep using it as a way to protect and hoard their knowledge vs. helping one another.

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2. The second reason why I stopped using e-mail was because over the course of the last few years I have been having hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions with younger generations of knowledge workers, whether they are working already or before entering the workplace, and all along I realised that we were using all sorts of various different collaboration tools, except e-mail and we got the job done, just as effectively, so I thought if they could pull it off together, why couldn’t we, right?

3. The last reason as to why I started this movement over six years ago was essentially to demonstrate, as a social business evangelist, that there is a work life without e-mail. That, nowadays, we do have more appropriate and relevant collaborative and knowledge sharing tools that help us get our jobs done much more efficiently and effectively. Time and time again, plenty of people came to me indicating, as a show stopper, that they couldn’t do social networking at work because they just didn’t have the time and when asking additional questions about why that is happening I realised how they were all saying a large chunk of today’s interactions are happening through e-mail as a time sink, which is why I decided to challenge the status quo of e-mail in the enterprise and, instead, prove and demonstrate, day in day out, that you can eventually have a very productive work life using social technologies versus just e-mail.

2. Wired pointed out that you had reduced email volume by 98%, does that mean that now you only receive 2 million emails a year?

Well, before I started this movement of Life Without eMail I used to get about 30 to 40 e-mails per day. Over the course of the years, that amount has gone down substantially till it reached that 98% of e-mail reduction to the point where I was getting two e-mails per day a couple of years back, averaging about 15 per week, which, I guess, is not too bad after all. The interesting part is that I have not reduced my interactions with others though, quite the opposite, they have increased a great deal, so the main difference is that the vast majority of those conversations are now happening through open, public social networking tools allowing for knowledge to flow freely helping people make better decisions with that information.

3. Honestly, who can really get rid of email. I can’t imagine telling my clients I don’t want to communicate with them in that way?!

You would be surprised about the large amount of people (Customers as well!) who are most willing to reduce their e-mail Inboxes in order to collaborate and share the knowledge across much more openly and transparently through social technologies. It’s that inertia that’s killing us, that is, the one where we don’t challenge the status quo and we all keep resorting to e-mail because “Everyone uses it, so why change?” Well, exactly because of that!

If you look into it it’s all about an opportunity to renegotiate how we collaborate with our peers as well as our customers and business partners, helping everyone understand how there’re better and much more effective ways of collaborating and how, If you come up with a good number of various different use cases, it would be very well off to a good start reducing substantially the amount of incoming e-mail and instead rely more on social computing tools. And the journey begins.

That’s why, before you begin, I always tell people to try to identify how they will want to improve the way they share their knowledge, how they would want to collaborate thinking and acting differently, so then, once you start picking up the various different use cases I referenced above already, is just all about executing and getting things started, with those use cases as guidance, and one step at a time. That’s how it all begins.

4. I must humbly admit I tried to mimic you and decided to get rid of cc email, and cut the fat in a big way. Sometimes it did backfire at me (when I was working at a very large organisation)

I would think that one of the main reasons why it may backfire sometimes is no other than having colleagues who prefer to work the good old way, I.e. Working in a private, closed, opaque and obscure environment where people hoard and protect the knowledge because they feel it is their competitive advantage that will make them indispensable, So they prefer to share their knowledge in short snippets to a very reduced, well-known, audience (their peers), instead of opening up conversations to potentially everyone in the organisation.

The very fascinating thing is that this way of thinking, i.e. Knowledge is Power, is coming to an end and instead we are transitioning into that other well known mantra that “knowledge shared is power”, where the more information and knowledge that you share across with your peers the more powerful you will become, because everyone will know you, your expertise, and, much for importantly, your network, which, at the end of the day, is what really matters. Knowledge flowing into networks will always trump knowledge stocks trapped in silos (your mailbox).

Those of us interested in redefining a new way of working, much more open and transparent, would need to keep persevering and become a lot more resilient helping others understand how there is no way back. That journey towards open networks, collaborating together, getting the job done is the future of the workplace; our work versus (just) my work.

5. If I were to suppress email, do you think I could replace it with my Corporate Social Network. I have a feeling that I couldn’t quite do that now… So what do you propose? Smoke signals?

Yes, certainly! If you would want to replace, or, better said, move vast majority of interactions happening through e-mail today, you would need to make use of an enterprise social networking platform, more than anything else because they will allow you to open up, share your knowledge, and participate in the conversations. That’s where it all starts.

More and more organisations are realising that they can no longer ignore, nor neglect, the impact of becoming a successful social businesses through the adoption and enablement of corporate social intranets, driven by enterprise social software, whatever that may well be. They just don’t want to be left out. They know that in order to survive in the so-called knowledge economy, they would need to leap forward into adjusting to the new reality of collaborating through networks, no longer the traditional top-down hierarchy.

The way you could put it into context would be by helping organisations understand how the more employees would keep using e-mail for their day to day interactions, the more knowledge will get deleted and lost along the way when those employees are ready to make the move, i.e. Finding a new job, moving on, or just simply retiring. This is a rather poignant problem at the moment with the baby boomer generation, because they have started retiring by the hordes while their knowledge has been poorly shared and transferred to younger generations. Why? Well, because they have been using e-mail all along and that’s the first thing HR does: delete your mailbox when you’re gone, which means that all of your knowledge gets lost. For good.

That’s a problem we can no longer afford having in today’s workplace. The choice is out there to make the move into social networks. It’s just a matter for us to decide if we want to grab it, or not. The alternative is everything but good, and such a missed opportunity, if we don’t grab it by continuing to challenge the status quo of how e-mail works in today’s business world.

6. People – at least in Europe, and those I meet, even and chiefly Gen Y who loooove their email – are very reticent when it comes to suppressing email. When do you think this will change?

If you look into it, and with exceptions, of course, vast majority of younger employees are only using e-mail today to get in touch with people, generally, older than them, i.e. People more senior, or in higher positions, or, simply, with older members of their families. The reality is that those younger generations no longer rely on e-mail as the main primary means of communication, quite the opposite, it is just one other option, which in most cases gets totally ignored, because they don’t feel it makes the cut anymore.

In a work context, if you asked them, the main reason why they keep using e-mail is because it’s the only way they’ve got to reach out to older generations of colleagues, who usually happen to have the knowledge they would need to carry out their job(s). So, Instead of having to reinvent the wheel, they rather prefer to use e-mail to get in touch with those older colleagues, get the information they need, and then continue collaborating with their peers through social technologies. That’s why the adoption of social software tools at work is probably slower than it should be, mainly, because those older generations feel very at ease within the comfort zone, i.e. e-mail, while younger generations keep thriving in their own social networks, creating a bit of a disconnect at times, which could be easily fixed if those older generations would understand the working style(s) of the younger ones and act accordingly.

That is one of the main reasons why six years ago I decided to challenge the status quo of e-mail and show everyone, whether senior employees, or younger ones, there is a brave new world out there through openness, transparency, clarity, etc. that social networking tools enable in order to help us become more effective at what we do. It’s also an opportunity for us, knowledge workers, to own back our work and become a whole lot more responsible and accountable for what we do every day, in context and with our networks. And it all starts by freeing ourselves up from the email yoke. Starting today.

Yann Gourvennec
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Yann Gourvennec

CEO & Founder at Visionary Marketing
Yann has a long-standing experience in marketing, information systems and Web marketing. He created visionarymarketing.com in 1996 and since then, he has practiced Web strategy, e-business and Web communications in the field. He has been a member of socialmedia.org from 2008 till 2013 and he co-founded Media Aces, the French Association for enterprises and social media. He is a lecturer, a keynote speaker, an author and blogger. His upcoming book Mastering Digital Marketing Like A Boss will be published soon. In early 2014, he went from intrapreneur to entrepreneur when he founded his digital marketing agency Visionary Marketing, in partnership with Effiliation.
Yann Gourvennec
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