Achieving a zero email culture: is bureaucracy a showstopper ?

Posted on: December 21, 2011 by Hubert Tardieu

As pointed out in my recent blog ”The Grail Quest for Social Organization”, zero mail is not an objective in itself but the recognition that companies are suffering from email overload.While the use of social media has become common place in the consumer space at the expense of email usage, the enterprise is still struggling to come to terms with the unstructured nature of these platforms.

"No Mail Please", copyrights of picture reserved by Mr. Fisserman

In the last weeks many bloggers have commented on Thierry Breton’s repeated announcements on Zero Mail and I am glad to see the industry is adding to the debate. We need this debate to continue to help improve the working environment and reduce data pollution.

In his post ” Why will "zero Email" policies fail? Bureaucracy?”  Brian Prentice from Gartner concludes : “Email doesn’t erode productivity and encroaches work into our personal lives, bureaucracy does “. He rightly presents email “as one-to-one/one-to-many communication system radically increasing the ability of people to seek assistance, create and delegate tasks, update colleagues and coordinate activities”

Email started as a democratic tool within bureaucratic organizations. It is not the case anymore and organizations have put in place self defense mechanisms helped by CC, BCC and REPLY ALL

- Email overload is creating a new burden on the digital age worker’s ability to master their environment where productivity is hindered rather than enhanced..

- actually email is the embodiment of modern bureaucracy as it structures all relationships in the office and, as for all systems, the email evolution curve has reached the point where the system brings more disadvantages than advantages.

- People naturally like the fire and forget nature of the email exchange having dealt with the matter … at least until it comes back.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with asynchronous communication and yes we love email BUT

- It is not asynchronous anymore as it becomes a real time games of email ping-pong generate an ever growing pile of emails to manage.

- The issue is (1) data deluge, (2) time consumption or should that be time control given that there is always a choice.

Let us not confuse the syndrome ”email overload” and the root cause of email itself: a need for cooperation to complement and lubricate the enterprise processes established to enable the organization to deliver in line with its objectives.

Bureaucracy is associated to a rigid application of standard processes and rule based organization of work. Preventing “over-bureaucracy” means encouraging initiative and promoting an entrepreneurial attitude in the organization.

I am convinced that Social Organizations will have to find the right balance between formal processes often described as “Lean” organization and more cooperation to encourage individual and collective initiatives."

Cooperation is about the exchange of information within a community. Communities can be created for common interest or for common purpose.

When the community is created for common interest, members share values, skills, experience and are encouraged to exchange to get more knowledge and gather other members’ opinion.

When the community is created for common purpose, it will have visible and agreed objectives endorsed by the company. In their book “The Social Organization” A Bradley and M McDonald are recommending differentiating between “grassroots communities” where the momentum is strong enough between members to exist (and the company only needs to approve the purpose) and “sponsored communities” which are initiated and animated by the company itself. It could be argued that the former is more likely to succeed than the latter as volunteers are more likely to be self-motivated by the task in hand. It is therefore essential that “sponsored communities” have the sponsorship of the organization but without the bureaucracy.

Sponsored communities” will therefore concentrate both the risk and the reward of the social organization to the enterprise: too top down driven, too rigid, too oriented to formal reporting will kill their purpose and they will be rejected by their members. Properly balanced as a necessary complement to enterprise processes, they will help to detect talent, to generate consensus, to allocate tasks and to update colleagues. The community moderators, a role yet to generalize in social organization, will play a key role by showing no complacency on the purpose of the community but flexibility in its execution.

Supporting cooperation through the new Enterprise Social Network is the next frontier. The tools which can help are not document centric; they have to be people centric.

Two challenges have to be addressed by them:

- Make the best use of the individual attention, given his/her context(location, schedule, device used as a terminal). Attention mismanagement is clearly a factor of stress and overload.

- Act as a fully integrated environment which can remain available whatever terminal you use (PC at work, Smartphone on the move, PC at home) and give access to all communication tools (Phone, Unified Communications, Rssfeed, video,..) without interrupting your session involving members of your community and documents.

The bet of the Social Organization is that cooperation within communities associated with appropriate processes will create a new style of organization and a new style of management more suitable to the digital generation. In the Social Organization, we shall communicate through the enterprise social network across the various communities we belong to, reducing the usage of mail to formal communication.

So, if bureaucracy is the disease, do not just blame it for the fever but administer the proper treatment.

Thanks to  mr Fisserman for the usage of "No Mail Please" image.

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About Hubert Tardieu

Advisor of Atos CEO, leader of the Atos Scientific Community
After 27 years in Sema then SchlumbergerSema then Atos in various positions including Global Telecom, Global Finance, Global Systems Integration and Global Consulting, I am today the advisor of Atos CEO helping him to form the vision of what will be our world in 5 years from now. To help me in this task we have formed the Scientific Community in June 2009. This global community comprises now 160 of the top scientists, engineers and forward thinkers from across the Group, with a rich mix of skills and backgrounds. Their latest main publication, a future vision report, is entitled “Journey 2024 - Redefining Enterprise Purpose”. They also produce other publications including whitepapers and blogs and participate in innovation workshops and proof-of-concepts. 

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