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.

antimuseum.com-inhouse-4480

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!

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Blade Network Technologies: “IBM now has the network fabric to solve its clients’ pain-points in the data centre”

Back in June 2010, we visited Blade Network Technologies, a Nortel spin-off which was doing exceptionally well in the data centre business by providing networking infrastructure and services within the data centre; a concept Vikram Mehta had described as being the “network fabric” of the data centre. We paid another visit to BNT on November 18 at their new premises in Santa Clara, but this time, BNT is no longer a start-up  but an IBM company. So what has changed since then and what is in store for the market in that area?

“Not much has changed in BNT Mehta said, apart from the red bar in the E of the Blade logo which has became blue” (as shown in our logo montage on top of this post) Mehta said, but the IBM deal was described in detail by the CEO of BNT as being a real oppportunity for IBM clients.

It’s actually not quite true that things haven’t changed since June. BNT is now 322 people-strong, vs. 250 when we last met in June 2010, hiring more people in sales, engineering and customer support. BNT is also very close to the 10m shipped ports bar which was their goal at the beginniing of the year and they are now #2 in data centre switching.

On Oct 29, IBM closed the acquisition of BNT, a deal which had started on September 27, 2010. “As was discussed at our latest meeting in June” Mehta went on, “what our customers are worried about is the scaling of their data centre infrastructure”. The architecture of the future will be made of many IT elements, federated together: “but how do you connect such elements?” Vikram Mehta asked: “with the network fabric” he said, “and now IBM has that network fabric”.

“The maximisation of the IT infrastructure has very much been discussed via the world ‘virtualisation’” Vikram Mehta went on and IBM was a pioneer in virtualisation years ago. Now, Blade Network Technologies is bringing network virtualisation to the lot so that IBM is able to “deliver in all the areas of virtualisation: server, storage and network” Mehta said. Besides, because networks are the weakest link in IT security, and because BNT has a track-record in network security, IBM is also able to better protect its clients’ data centres. There are many other areas in which BNT can team up with IBM beyond architecture improvements such as data warehousing (through the recent acquisition of Netezza by IBM), TCO reduction.

IBM focus: “best of breed solutions”

How is BNT linked to IBM and through which division? There are 2 things. IBM exited the networking business in 1999 and in 2010, almost 10 years later, they re-entered the market through the acquisition of BNT. BNT will report to the systems and technology group (STG) and will form the networking division within that group, Mehta explained. Tivoli does IT service management at the highest level, Mehta added, and BNT has already been integrated in that picture for a long time and this integration will only get better under the new management.

The approach , compared to other visions on the market is far less proprietary, a vision in which customers choose what is best for them (NAS, fiberchannel, Tivoli, Openview, Opsware etc.) we will continue to provide linkages to all these systems.

By focussing on the system, IBM is focussed on “best of breed” regardless of where elements come from, and “IBM is committed to best of breed” Mehta insisted. Hence, all the agreements that BNT had in the past, with Cisco, Brocade and Juniper will continue in the future. Some solutions are brought to the market by IBM themselves, some are third party and delivered by IBM.

what does it change for BNT

It is easy to see what IBM is getting in that deal, but what are BNT’s own objectives? “Our focus is to grow our share of the pie” (see Gartner stats on the righthand side), Mehta responded, and BNT will achieve this through innovation and strategic partnerships, Mehta added.  He also mentioned that the slice of the pie would grow because the overall market itself would be growing too.

IBM will be working with co-opetitors HP and NEC

Mehta insisted that the business that BNT was doing with HP and NEC will not only continue but will be re-inforced.

What does a “trusted advisor” really mean?

You may not yet be familiar with Cisco and its ‘trusted advisor’ approach – in which the equipment provider is raising the bar and advising its clients rather than just selling to them. But what is a ‘trusted advisor’ and how do you achieve that status? Professor Lee Schlenker from EmLyon’s Chair of Emerging Economies and Technologies reports:

What does a “trusted advisor” really mean?

I recently had the opportunity during a CIO Conference in Zurich to ask Chris Hughes, one of the three founders of Facebook, if he saw a link between “trust” and “truth” in the practice of business today. Chris responded “no there probably isn’t… at least not in the media industry”. I followed up with the question in that case who does he trust? After a few moments thought, he replied, “I guess those that open up to me.”

The notion of the “trusted advisor” has become a key theme in the IT industry today. IBM, Microsoft Oracle, and a myriad of other firms are claiming that the development of trusted advisors constitutes a powerful value lever inside their companies and in their eco-systems. But what exactly is a “trusted advisor”, what does it mean in the context of the IT industry, and what lessons can be learned for the CIO?

Information systems have long provided a mirror of how management sees their employees, their customers, and their working environment. This image of work today is cloudy at best: most employees, not to mention their own managers, have increasing trouble in defining the contours of their professions, their job requirements, and even the foundations of trust in their organizations. As Daniel Goleman reminds us, workplace realities today are shaped by the absence of job security, the preference of “portable skills” over “technical competencies”, and a form of managerialism based as much mistrust as on trust.

Most CIOs readily admit that the truth isn’t in the figures, but in what the figures represent. Information systems vehiculate competing visions of how managers can shape professional behaviour in today’s workplace. On one hand IT systems are developed to reinforce the traditional concept of control, which suggests that information systems provide a coordinating mechanism based on asymmetric relations of power to guide behaviour for the good of the corporation. . One the other, IT systems are expected to enhance trust, which contrastingly refers to a coordinating mechanism based on shared values and norms used to deal with uncertainty. The multiple sources of uncertainty today in the market, in the corporation, and in the meaning of work have pushed managers to look beyond the limits of control to the potential value of trust.

How can the CIO and his team work to build trust in this context? Vanessa Hall, author of The Truth About Trust in Business, suggests that in our virtual world the task is more daunting than ever: “seeing is believing” doesn’t convey the same meaning when information technology replaces face to face interactions. Blind trust based on accumulated experience proves difficult where physical meetings with our customers and our own managers are increasingly rare. Trustworthiness, based a personal or product based reputation doesn’t hold up much better in an environment in which everything is marketed. In a technologically intermediated world, Hall argues that we are left to focus either on contextual trust – understanding what will work in a special context or referred trust – relying on the opinions of those we admire. In contrast to blind trust, contextual and referred trust are finite resources that can be progressively nurtured or rapidly consumed by managerial practice

Our recent “Journey to Value” workshops[1] with Microsoft’s European Operations Centers have underlined both the challenges and the opportunities of building trust in the organization and in its relationships with its business partners. Kees Pronk, Senior Director Partner & Field Operations for Microsoft EMEA, opened the workshops with the challenge that “trust is built on a clean track record of reliability, credibility and a well-developed interpersonal awareness.” Although most of the participants agreed that trust should be a key ingredient of good management –, one manager argued passionately that trust had nothing to do with their jobs – employees “just needed to get on with it”. “Getting on with it” proved a challenge in itself, for most of the group felt quite uneasy, if not frustrated, by the lack of corporate directives on how to reach the group’s ambitious goals for the fiscal year. The complexity of the challenges proved a third issue, for few of the customer and organizational challenges at hand could be solved by traditional top-down command and control processes.

The workshops’ exercises and outputs proved quite informative. The discussions on “truth ” and “trust” demonstrated to many the importance of personal engagement in reaching organizational objectives. The discussions on “getting on with it” brought to light both where existing practices and experiences could be channeled to get work done, and where top management needed to provide more input to move the team forward . The exercises around the ladder of trust demonstrated how the group could use the wisdom of their peers in building operational value levers one step at a time to meet financial objectives. Finally, the group’s conclusion that truth was less about storing the facts in a database and then archiving them for posterity, than about building and strengthening relationships inside work and out.

A few potential experiments that can help CIOs and their teams build trust within their organizations and with their business partners include:

Open up your communication challenges. Extend your information systems to address not only formal institutional communication, but to capture and air the information communication once reserved to talk around the coffee table. Encourage management to go beyond the facts to document the rationale behind the decisions that have already been made, and the tough choices that lay ahead.

Develop information systems that encourage bottom up input . Compare the benefits and risks of “unbounding” the enterprise systems that mirror organizational truths. To what extent can 2.0 technologies break down the barriers around data to shed light on the stories behind the facts?

Encourage management to explore the nature of organizational issues. Which problems are well documented and can be solved by optimizing processes or applying best practices. Which problems elude organizational answers that have been answered by experts.

Note: Editorial published in CIO Connect, April 2010

The Chair of Emerging Economies and Technologies at the EMLyon focuses on how the interplay between innovative technologies and business models is transforming management teams, organizations and markets. I am publishing thereafter a pre-release of the first edition of CEET InFocus for your information and potential suggestions. Your comments are invaluable and would enable us to improve our newsletter has been designed by our Chair to foster conversation around our customer value propositions for students, faculty and business partners.

Should you want to be included in the distribution list of the CEET InFocus newsletter, please contact Professor Lee SCHLENKER, ChairEET