Adam Sherwin, writing in The Independent (7th December 2011), posed the question “The Death Of Email?” regarding the decision of Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos, to phase out the use of email within Atos, and to replace it with instant messaging (IM), a corporate Wiki, and other social media tools. I doubt that anyone will mourn the demise of email. He is not the first to see email as a scourge. Bob Geldof, back in 2005, said that the ‘doing’ part of the job was proportionate to the number of emails you don’t answer!
We all experience the tendency of some colleagues to say “sorry for the wide distribution”, which is often followed by a reply-all, “take me off this distribution”, or even more bizarrely, a reply-all that commands “STOP replying to all!”, which then escalates like some electronic echo chamber.
Beyond these frequent irritations lies a deeper issue. Outlook has become an information reservoir. The long essay is not enough, so lets add several attachments to back it up. 50Mb of Powerpoint should do the trick! The abuse of email is now routine, transformed from a messaging tool into a bottomless pit of unindexed information. For a large number of people on this planet, the dispairing message “can you send me the latest version … of that very important document we are all working on!” is a daily reminder of this sorry state of affairs.
So Breton is quite right to see email as a villain. I would add a word of warning. A tool is only as good as the ways in which it is used, and the culture of the organisation. People can create Wiki silos as easily as Outlook ones, and without any improvement in the chain of custody over information. The management of business critical records is something that is not in the social media comfort zone. But even allowing for the fact that other tools are needed to deal with the management of business records, there is an even deeper issue raised by Breton’s radicalism. How is a truly learning organisation created, over the long term?
Working as I do in sectors like energy with long memories, it clearly needs something more than a Wiki or two to capture, consolidate and retain the breadth of information needed by such complex value chains, as the decades in the life of an oil well. There is therefore, a much deeper challenge – technical, informational and cultural - to put all the elements together to enable the long-term development of knowledge and retention of intellectual property, in a sustainable way over many years.
Enterprise Content Management (ECM) has many of the capabilities needed, and remains an essential underpinning for any strategy to create a true ‘learning organisation’ with a long memory, such as in energy, pharmaceuticals and the public sector. One could say that social media plus ECM is a union whose time has come, because they complement each other very well when developing a strategy for knowledge retention and re-use, as I have tried to illustrate.