Thursday, February 7, 2013

How do we end the reign of internal email?




If you follow my writings on this blog and CMS Wire, you have perhaps stumbled across my CMS Wire article “Time to Break the Habit of Internal Email” or the follow-up article “Moving Beyond Email”. This is blog post can be seen as a continuation of those two articles and an expansion of a Google+ post.
Every customer I work with, and for, is suffering big time from the problems of internal email.Virtually every bad decision, delayed project, disengaged employee, duplicated work or rework is due to insufficient and/or badly executed communication – which to a large part can be blamed on how we use email and that we haven't yet adopted better ways of communicating with each other. Large, distributed, and specialized organizations operating in a dynamic, fast-paced and constantly changing business environment simply cannot continue to rely on email as their main means of communication (or physical meetings and phone calls in situations where they simply cannot use email). The thing is that the problems with email is getting worse. As Michael Arrington wrote on TechCrunch about a month ago, user data from Cue reveals that people are getting more emails than ever before, while at the same time fewer emails are being read and we're taking more time to respond. Although these findings are about email use in general, I am pretty sure it applies to internal email as well.

If you look at the four different types of communication illustrated below, it is easy to find problematic aspects of email for all types of communication. For the average organization, email is the primary tool for all of them. The red arrow illustrates the in what direction you will find the most problems with email-based communication.

Although a lot of the employees are aware of the problems with internal email, not much is being done about it. The way many implement social collaboration platforms, as a silo of its own and not as a real replacement for email, is simply putting lipstick on a pig. Instead of simplifying some kinds of communication such as many-to-many conversations, the introduction of a social collaboration platform might even make the burden of communicating worse if it’s just added on top of existing tools without trying to fundamentally change the ways people – and managers in particular - are communicating with each other inside an organization.

I believe the main reason for the lack of change is that email has been seen as a perfect tool for managers to communicate with their subordinates, leaving little room for feedback loops, dialog and open discussions among the employees. It feels safer that no one outside the list of the recipients can see what they are communicating and to whom. Why expose yourself to the risk of some external stakeholder questioning what is being communicated, or asking for more information? I believe this has fostered a culture that is the opposite of the one we associate with external social media. Over the years, email has become an institution for management communication, and to expect that the people who created the institution and are dependent on its existence will destroy it is perhaps a bit naive. Only visionaries and leaders will be able to do it. We can expect that anyone who tries to change status quo, will be questioned by the people feel threatened by any change.

4 comments:

  1. I really enjoy your insightful blogposts, Oscar! This time you have nailed it again. It is no use building a social intranet if the employees continue to communicate by email. For them to make the change to a new communication platform, we have to show them why intranet collaboration is a better way. And it must be much better if they should bother to make the effort. But how? I've got a feeling it is not enough with principles and guidelines...

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  2. I agree that email probably feels a lot safer for older managers. I tried to get our senior managers to use our internal social network (Yammer) and failed.

    But internal social networks can help solve the email problem even if senior managers wouldn't use it.

    I introduced Yammer in my organisation two years ago (I'm the sole internal comms person). It was hard work. But the thing is, cultural change doesn't happen overnight. You have to be patient. And you have to become an internal strategist...

    There are ways to facilitate internal change. For example: if you have access to interesting and important information only post it on the internal network. Never ever email it. And if you don't have access to internal killer content find someone who does and make a deal with him/her. Chances are there are other people in the organisation who believe in flat, networked communication and are willing to champion new ways of working.

    And when the revolution starts in one corner of the organisation it tends to spread...

    I drew an infographic based on my experiences. There are several pictures relevant to the email problem:

    http://www.businessillustrator.com/infographic/how-to-introduce-yammer-in-your-organisation-guide-to-internal-communications-people/


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  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. @virpi - I love your infographic.

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  4. Nice article Oscar. I use Podio to communicate with my internal and virtual team, trust me it has raised the standards.

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