World take note: Thierry Breton hates email

Newspapers have recently been reporting the news that French IT services company Atos will end internal email by 2014. It presents this bombshell as being the brainchild of boss Thierry Breton, who having been at France Telecom ought to know what he’s talking about. Of course, having been in government he also knows the value of viral marketing and how to spark it.

So what’s all this about?

Assuming it’s not simply a (successful) attempt to get a bit of publicity for his company, he must be serious. Thierry Breton has decided that email is bad, and it really must go.

My first concern here is why the CEO of a company is getting so involved in deciding how the IT tools work? And at an IT company too! Isn’t there anyone specialising in, say, IT, who has the job of creating and promoting the appropriate tools for the folks at Atos to do their jobs? From the BBC’s article, it sounds like it’s very much his baby.

Essentially, Thierry is choosing between two options: a) a mix of SMTP and IMAP presenting data through a traditional email client and b) proprietary data exchange protocols working, presumably, at the database level and presenting data through custom web interfaces. Why does he care? Apparently he hasn’t used email for five or six years, but I suspect he hasn’t travelled economy for at least that long either.

Email as we know it today is ubiquitous, fast, and effective at delivering content to one or more people. What it isn’t is efficient, as it is used poorly in many cases (those “reply all” emails, for example, as well as Corporate Spam) and more importantly it does not provide a mechanism for getting the right information to the right people at the right time. It would be pretty easy to address a good deal of the concerns over email volume by applying a filter to only show message “To” yourself, and by the organisation banning Corporate Spam. Or, and here’s a shocker, to educate people to use it properly.

(Corporate Spam, by the way, is all those emails which go to building aliases, massive chain-of-command aliases, or other non-specific groupings and which proudly announce a new product, a new phone number, a winning of a reward or some other such news which could just as easily be posted on a news website. The quick tip is if an email has a picture of an exec looking smarmy at the top, delete it immediately.)

My big theme, if I have a big theme, is that the art of communications isn’t just about communications tools – it’s about the people using them too. I’m heartened that Thierry’s big quest appears to have come about from a study of working conditions, but I’m not so sure he’s looked at the big picture. If the papers can be trusted, he’s focused on the “bright young things” who have never used Outlook and, of course, never wear a watch because their phone is always to hand. It’s of course great to get the input of fresh minds, but fresh minds who haven’t much experience aren’t necessarily going to have all the answers.

Perhaps I’m being unkind. No doubt this has been given a great deal of thought by the great and good at Atos. So let’s take a look at what they’ll be doing.

The clearest statement is that internal email will be axed by 2014, but external email – email to customers, business partners and the rest of the outside world – will remain. A necessary evil? Surely just a recognition that email can be useful. Which is my second concern. Email can be useful – it really can. It’s a nice easy way of getting a message from one person to another. Why chuck it out in favour of new an untested tools? If the problem is Outlook, then get rid of Outlook. But because person-to-person and person-to-multiperson communication is important email, however it’s presented, is an important part of the mix.

What will replace email? An integration of social media tools, unspecified but fairly obvious. There are IM/Presence, wikis, blogs, forums, tagging and advanced search to choose from, as well as technology such as RSS.

Where email is the mature father figure of the electronic communications age, social networking is the offspring. Some, like IM, have grown fairly mature and are well liked in the community – but IM still has nowhere near the reach of email. Why can’t I see the presence of and send an IM to anyone in the world who has an IM client? Because they’re not all connected (sometimes because of security mania, sometimes because of cost or perceived lack of need). OK, so within an organisation this will not matter but the point is none of these tools have the maturity of email and so integration suffers because the standardisation is not there. No matter what people say, social media tools do not integrate well. A note on your Facebook wall will not appear in Google Plus, you need to integrate at the client level – which is not a good thing. Yes, you can build something that works but you’re going to be maintaining it for the rest of your life. That’s what standards are for, to lessen the integration burden.

The time is right to embrace all communications tools and put them to use as effectively as possible. Some customer integration is acceptable, and is certainly necessary. But the time is not right to re-invent the world. Email remains a valid tool which should be embraced and not shunned because of the failings of its users.

And whilst I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Atos can put together a solution that works for them, this isn’t a step forward for the industry. Yes, marketing men the world over who want to hype social media tools will be eager for a poster child, but in reality what we’re seeing here is a bespoke solution hacked together for the benefit of a control-freak CEO – and complete rejection of an established tool. What I would far rather see is a reasoned communications methodology for Atos, a definition of how they do business and how their tools make it work. It needs to cover all business processes which involve information flow, not just the stuff that essentially replaces paper memos and face-to-face meetings. Following that, I’d like to see that communications methodology embodied into infrastructure and backed by a pervasive cultural change.

I hope that’s what Thierry has in mind, and if so I’d be very interested to see it.