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October 2019
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The company without email

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We all have email.

Some of us even have multiple email addresses. From these accounts we send and receive emails for work and/or pleasure and some of these mailboxes are only visited occasionally.

From snail mail to e-mail

Snail mail and email have a lot of similarities. Fundamentally they do the same things, only email is digital. The concept of editing and sending a message is not different. But by mail it is just cheaper, delivery is quasi immediate and we’re not dependent of Mail Delivery Companies. The unchanged fundamentals of exchanging messages is actually the main reason why email was adopted by the majority of the public (even grandmas use it).

The speedy delivery at nearly no cost extended the use of email to more than sending letters. The barrier and effort of writing a letter and the days of waiting before one received an answer in the past made us evaluate the necessity of sending the letter. The ease of use and the near instant interaction capability of the “e-version” ensures that email is used for any message, also the most futile. The outcome is an overwhelming amount of email with low quality content.

Snail mail versus email

Overwhelming amount of email

Several elements contributed to the enormous volume of emails going around, e.g.
  • long discussion threads,
  • automatically generated emails
  • and email as a storage box for documents and information.
Besides the sheer volume of emails we receive, the support of discussion threads is another challenge. These mainly relate to content intensive and thus long-threaded discussions imbedded in the messages exchanged. Getting a clear overview of the evolving discussion and being sure of looking at the most recent situation is difficult in an overall mailbox, structured along the line of date and sender. When a more nested discussion involves different people, uncovering the discussion thread becomes even more difficult.

Email stress

Further, automatically generated emails increase the size of mailboxes. This became a big problem, when applications and platforms started generating automatic notifications channeled via email. For example, is communicating a task, whether ad hoc or generated by a project management environment, workflow or case management system best done via email? For email users this only means that they are confronted with hitting the ceiling of their mailbox quota earlier.

Finally, for a lot of us email has de facto become the repository of reference for all communications, as well as interactions with clients and storing documents. It has become our main document and information management tool. With information confined in the individual mailbox, sharing and collaborating while creating more mail discussion threads reinforces overwhelming inboxes.

Should we use other channels? Ban email?

Even though media for publishing are more differentiated (social media, messaging apps,…) than in the past, we often persist in our habits, typically when broadcasting. Corporate messages were traditionally printed and distributed via internal mail and personal pigeon holes. However, is using email to distribute the corporate newsletter the best choice now? And is sending out task notifications via email a good idea?
Thierry Breton

Thierry Breton

The evolutions described in the previous paragraphs led us to question the appropriateness of email as the main communications platform. Corporate initiatives on getting rid of email, either as a strategic policy or as a grassroots initiative led by the younger aged groups are emerging.

In the recent past, bold statements have been made on banning email from corporate practices. In Europe the best heard announcement was that of Thierry Breton, CEO of French IT company Atos. In 2012, he declared a ban on internal email for the company’s 80,000 employees, to be effective in 2014.

The value of communication in context

Email is communication and reasons for communicating vary. We want a task to be executed, we launch a request for information or want to inform somebody on a certain subject. A lot of the communication is launched in the context of a specific project or in the confines of an organisational unit tackling collaboration issues relating to specific agreements. In larger organisations, information distribution may require filtering on geographical basis, country or branch.

In a majority of cases, the value of communication is realized in context. Being bombarded with information via email at any moment in time leads to wasted energy and disruption. Only tasks requiring immediate action, preferably in the specific context, to be executed by an individual should be addressed or pushed to you directly. Often these tasks can be taken up by team members in the project, community or group context. Having insight in the number of messages and their urgency should provide enough information while not disturbing you when acting on the thing at hand.

Therefore, the notification list should have a self cleaning capacity. When a task has been executed or is taken up by somebody it should disappear from your inbox. The same goes for information once taken note of, which should be stored and thus ready for retrieval in a repository. Internally sourced messages are created in context and can be found in the context of creation using search and navigation facilities offered by the information infrastructure. For externally sourced information, automatic classification puts the message in context.

The need for specific mobile applications

The majority of communication solutions are directed at office workers, who currently have direct access to email and other messaging applications using their personal computer. An increasing segment of them have become nomadic workers for whom connectivity solutions were developed early in the evolution to mobile applications. Sales and services staff were the first to be equipped with mobile devices permitting them to connect with central offices.

 

Inbox email overloadA large part of the employees, mainly hourly or production workers, however, don’t and never had email access or PC access in the workplace. Nevertheless, also for them the value of information increases and this in an environment that is moving to be predominantly digital. Mobile access is an option as they don’t have a dedicated desk available. The requirements related to their increasingly flexible interaction in business processes pushes for the need of specific solutions.

Mobile applications targeted at specific organisation needs will channel information according to the needs of task and context giving opportunities to circulate more generic corporate and team information. In logistics it is possible to indicate where the next charge is to be taken up, taking into account the time, location and capacity of the material. The same is applicable on a micro level in hospitals where patients need to be brought from the day centre or the hospital ward to the operation theatre, notifying the assistant who is best located and available for the task at hand.

How to replace email in projects

Efficient communication between colleagues is necessary in a lot of different organisations, for example while working on projects or when geographical positions are involved. However, getting rid of the abundance of emails by reconfiguring your communications infrastructure should not be that difficult.

Quite a lot of project solutions are already available on the market. First, there are the chat applications for quick messages like HipChat and Slack. Then there are those who position themselves as communication hubs, providing integration with different information sources, such as personalized portals or dashboards. Even other approaches look at project support by bringing all relevant information together in a project dashboard, like JIRA. With the possibilities of the current information technology, information needs can be differentiated and even targeted based on situational context.

 

 

Pushing information based on geographical location is useful in logistics or even in hospitals and bigger campuses. Sharing information in a group, based on geographic location, interest, optimisation of task distribution, involvement with certain clientele or belonging to an organisational unit is another important feature of communicating. Based on activity tracking information, needs can be deduced, filtered, prioritized and targeted also when it comes bottom-up from any group member. Giving participants options to activate or de-activate targeting filters will add more value to the activity streams and notifications currently made available in most of the social platforms accessible in the market place.

How to look for email alternatives?

Looking for alternatives, focus should be on a number of central elements in communication:

  • purpose and goal of communication
  • content
  • context
  • audience
  • and method of address
Communication happens in a specific context and with a certain reason. The channel should be chosen appropriately. Shifting focus will open up discussions related to the use of email as a unique channel for communication.