Should the CIO Ban Email?

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I was at a conference last week where I heard about a CIO who is banning email. Looks like we’re not finished having a conversation about how email is hampering employee productivity. What tools and techniques can CIOs employ to improve enterprise communications in the face of a proliferation of channels? Is trading email for social collaboration tools the answer or do we need to change employee behavior? How about using the right tools at the right time in the right way?

I can sympathize with this CIO’s frustration over email. I have experimented with emptying my inbox and keeping it empty (the so-called inbox zero) and applying the Getting Things Done approach but the emails just flood in too fast and the replies generate more email. The effort is as futile as trying to knock away tennis balls delivered by a machine that never empties. Attempt to address all the other work and personal inbound channels (landline voicemail, mobile voicemal, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) simultaneously and you start to feel like you’re being pummeled from all different directions.

Tools Don’t Drive Productivity

Companies are trying to attack this burgeoning problem in a wide range of ways, but I’ve yet to see any of them succeed. Some have tried to throw more technology into the mix through social collaboration tools. Others employ productivity apps and solutions that sort through email inboxes such as Xobni, Lookeen and Rapportive. Vendors are pushing an updated version of unified communications, which links myriad traditional, mobile and social media communications channels to increase visibility and to speed response time, in some cases consolidating them all into your email inbox! In this case, every channel can see that every other channel has too many unimportant messages in them. Others are going the opposite direction and reverting to paper memos and more face-to-face meetings.

There are no easy fixes to this complex communications challenge. Let’s review the various approaches that a CIO can take and whether or not they might work to tackle the problem:

Shut off the email spigot?

Banning email is extreme and will make employees crazy, push email underground and drive a wedge between employees and superiors. I think that stripping employees of the one tool that they all use and are comfortable with, even though it can be frustrating and unproductive at times, is not the answer. It’s too draconian and it’ll inevitably backfire.

Throw a mix of tools at employees and let them decide when to use what?

This is the path that most companies are taking. They are adding social collaboration tools and linking channels, but they aren’t providing any ground rules for effective and efficient communication. This creates a lot of confusion, duplication of efforts and gaps in outreach.

Drive productivity based on the most important and high volume use cases?

We could take a step back and think about what we do collectively everyday and educate employees on using the right communications tool at the right time in the right way. I’m not saying that we need to unleash the email police and over-engineer communications to stop abuse of the reply-all feature, rein-in itchy trigger fingers or teach employees how to keep messages short and sweet. However, we could provide employees with some guidance on tapping communications tools in a way that enhances productivity, not to mention their peace of mind.

The CIO has the opportunity to be the champion of employee productivity. Maybe instead of trying to get our inboxes down to zero, we should go back to ground zero to evaluate which communications channel is most appropriate for the project at hand. For example, maybe email should be used when we need to document something and in one-to-one conversations, so messages don’t multiply to the point where the communication is out of control and overwhelming. For cases where there are more than 2 or 3 people copied on an email, maybe we can steer these to an internal social media platform or online discussion group.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know this is still a problem that hasn’t been solved. I welcome your thoughts on approaches that are working for you.

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  • Banning email will never work. Some employees will always need it to communicate with the outside world so banning it will create a ridiculous world of haves and have-nots. What does that accomplish? A bizarre email caste system in your office?

    I suppose you could ban internal email but I’m not really sure that gets you to an intellectually satisfying place either.

    I wonder if email is just a symptom of a deeper problem. The amount of data and stuff that gets sent around the organisation is the problem. Is email just the conduit of least resistance? Take it away and would you just watch yammer get overwhelmed?