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Two Cheers for Zero Email

Posted Apr 30, 2012, by Roy Speed

Email initiatives - Searching for the right policy

Thierry Breton is the CEO of Atos, a large IT services company, and last year he made a big splash by announcing a ban on internal email for his 74,000 employees.

We celebrate his action with two hearty cheers:

  • One cheer for recognition of the problem. M. Breton stands in stark contrast to most business leaders, who seem not to have noticed that employees are drowning in unnecessary email (employees routinely report that only a fraction of what they receive is necessary to their jobs). He also seems to recognize that Time Spent on Email = Real Money (if your employees are spending a third of each day in email, you're investing one third of payroll in email activity).
  • One cheer for boldness. In one stroke, Monsieur Breton simply banishes email from internal communications at the company -- a bold move.

There's more to this story...
Since we're in the email-writing business, we're interested in the fine print -- and here's why only two cheers, and not three.

If you examine the original announcement of "zero email" at Atos, interesting details emerge:

  • Doomsday postponed. Turns out that the company's ambition is to implement zero email "within three years." So while Monsieur Breton may be bold, he is not rash; he's giving his people time to explore their options.
  • Internal communication only. The press release makes clear that with "zero email," the company is targeting only emails between employees. Emails with customers, for instance, will not be affected.
  • Email's replacement. The company aims to shift internal communication from email to "improved communication applications" and "new collaboration and social media tools." The news release specifically mentions Microsoft's Office Communicator (which seeks to enable employees to chat, share files, brainstorm on a whiteboard, etc.).

What it all means
It means that Monsieur Breton has noticed the email problem but not solved it. To be more precise, he hasn't solved what Andrew McAfee refers to as The 9x Email Problem.

In a famous blog of that name, McAfee pointed out that 1) everyone's favorite work-collaboration tool is email, and 2) most of us are strongly biased against replacements -- too risky, too uncertain, too troublesome; easier to stick with what's already working. Any technology that wants to replace email can't be just twice as good, or even three times as good; to overcome our resistance to changing our habits and biases, it must be something more like nine or ten times as good.

That new, devastatingly brilliant, email-killing collaboration tool has not yet arrived, and whether Thierry Breton has found it -- or will find it -- remains to be seen. We'll be watching.


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Our Email Writing blog is about getting your head screwed on straight about what it means to write effectively. It's also about getting more mileage out of email — using our time efficiently.

For issues related to email performance across organizations and business units, please see our blog on Email Leadership.



I'm eager to hear about your challenges with workplace email. I won't reveal anything shared in confidence without your express permission. Email me about any of the following topics:

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