Killing E-Mail Softly: How One Company Is Planning Its Demise

As fewer people rely on e-mail, one IT services company plans to eradicate e-mail over three years, in favor of social business tools.

Many people share similar gripes with corporate e-mail: the fire hose of junk that permeates spam filters, the irrelevant press releases, the annoying reply-alls. Could the workplace be a better—and more productive place—if employees were free of the balls and chains of e-mail?

That's what one company believes and is setting its ambitious sights on. Atos Origin, an international IT services company, is aiming to wean its 80,000-person workforce off e-mail over the next three years.

"The volume of e-mails we send and receive is unsustainable for business," says CEO Thierry Brenton. "Managers spend between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing e-mails."

Another factor leading to this initiative: Employees are relying more on social methods of communication. There's Twitter, there's Facebook and a number of other tools inside and outside the enterprise. E-mail, it appears, is starting to take a back seat to social technologies.

That revelation is one that got a lot of scrutiny a few months ago. In November 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared at the press conference for the new Messages: "We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail." The catalyst for Facebook to revamp its messaging platform, he said, was a conversation with high school students who told him they rarely use e-mail today because it's "too formal."

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That statement is echoed in a new report from ComScore. E-mail usage among 12- to 17-year-olds is down a whopping 49 percent in the last year. Twenty-five to 35-year-olds saw an 18 percent drop, while usage among 45- to 54-year-olds dropped 12 percent.

When Atos Origin execs announced it was going e-mail-free in three years, principal consultant William Rice says the news was initially met with shock.

"We had a discussion about how crazy of an idea it was to eradicate e-mail," Rice says. People then started to realize that it might not be so crazy afterall—that perhaps it was a great idea. "But it's more of a culture and attitude change than, 'Let's unplug the e-mail servers and plug in new tools,'" he says.

Atos Origins will focus on adopting social business solutions in the workplace to "bridge the social business gap." These solutions will provide a more personal, immediate and cost-effective means to managing and sharing information in the workplace, Rice says. The tools they're looking at run the gamut: everything from Microsoft to Oracle to small start-ups and open-source tools.

The first six months of the initiative will focus on scrutinizing the current culture of information exchange among its 80,000 employees and piloting potential tools, according to Rice.

Currently, Atos Origin uses solutions such as Microsoft Office Communicator, Yammer and has set up social community platforms to share and keep track of ideas, which has already reduced e-mail by between 10 and 20 percent, the company says.

Complete eradication of e-mail is an ambitious goal, Rice says, but he believes that's where social business solutions are headed.

"Right now, e-mail just comes in chronologically. It's just a bunch of envelopes and messages, without anything that says what's important," he says. "If you look at something like Gmail's Priority Inbox, that's a more evolved way of looking at e-mail. E-mail is a rather ancient technology that hasn't evolved much from the original concept."

There's a good argument in favor of social solutions someday surpassing e-mail usage in the enterprise, but it remains to be seen if company culture and attitudes evolve enough in three years to make it a reality.

Kristin Burnham covers Consumer Technology, SaaS, Social Networking and Web 2.0 for CIO.com. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kmburnham. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Kristin at kburnham@cio.com

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