How many times have you thought  ‘I could get so much more work done if it weren’t for all this email?’ A French company called Atos decided to see if it could in fact increase productivity if it ousted email.  Now the tech research company Gartner is checking out how well it did. Gartner being Gartner, it doesn’t provide a simple thumbs up or down verdict, but it does tease out some interesting nuances of the experiment.

(This may sound familiar to our faithful readers—a year ago we discussed taking email vacations, and mentioned Atos. The Gartner note is also to some degree a follow up from its Hype Cycle for Social Software from last year, which also mentioned organizations going no-email in passing as an innovation).

About a year ago, Gartner analysts predicted that the no-email trend would be short-lived and that most companies wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—attempt it. Instead, organizations should look to improve collaboration; less email would then be a bonus of that effort.

Consequently, it isn’t surprising that the multiple Gartner analysts frame the whole Atos experience as not really being about going no-email. What it was really about was improving collaboration. Announcements about going no-email were just to create a sense of urgency, call attention to the project, and to make it harder to back down, the analysts insist.

“Atos is rallying around no email, but eliminating email is not its target objective,” Gartner writes. “Atos is using its campaign more for its hot-button marketing power—both internal and external to the company. CEO and chairman, [Thierry] Breton, is trying to mitigate email as a barrier to change. And by announcing the Zero email initiative to the world, he is sending a clear message to the organization that there is no going back.”

What’s more interesting about the Atos no-email experiment is how Gartner uses it as an example of how to effect change in a company. Here’s what it did right:

  • Got buy-in from the top. “Successful managers are instrumental in translating the overall value of the program into terms that resonate with individual employees,” Gartner writes. “If this link is missing, so is employee adoption.”
  • Created a “sense of urgency.” The no-email pledge and the publicity around it is more effective than a vaguer goal of “improving collaboration.”
  • Put its money where its mouth is. Performance evaluations and bonuses are tied to the no-email effort, with 10 percent of an executive’s bonus tied to its success and with other bonus incentives tied to executive engagement.
  • Really put its money where its mouth is. Gartner estimates that Atos is investing more than 500 times what a company typically spends on a collaboration program. This includes a number of new employees specifically related to the program and a great deal of training for all employees.

Atos’ approach wasn’t without risk, Gartner warns. The note was a bit grumbly about the whole effort, basically saying, “Well, they did pretty well, but that’s not really how you’re supposed to effect change in an organization.” Here are some of Atos’ riskier moves:

  • Went all in. Atos didn’t just buy a new product for collaboration—it bought blueKiwi outright.  “It is very unusual, and most often inadvisable, for an organization to buy a software company to improve employee productivity,” Gartner tut-tuts.
  • Took the cold turkey approach. Gartner didn’t really approve of the way that Atos just decided to go no-email as a company, willy-nilly, despite all the preparation. “The more prevalent and less risky approach is to change culture incrementally, pursuing smaller social collaboration solutions that focus on causes around which people will rally and that target more specific business outcomes,” Gartner writes.
  • Out of the frying pan into the fire. Stymied from using email, employees might have gone to a less effective collaboration platform than email, Gartner warns, such as telephone or face-to-face. Such communications methods are synchronous, meaning both people have to be available at the same time, and tend to be interrupt-driven instead of scheduled, which makes them less effective, Gartner writes. Similarly, BGR blogger Darren Murph warns that these methods often fail to capture the knowledge transfer that takes place.

Bottom line, how is Atos doing with the no-email pledge? Well, as with most Gartner notes, that depends…

On the one hand… Atos’ 2013 operating margin is 7.5, up from 6.5 percent in 2012. Free cash flow increased year over year from €267 million to €365 million, earnings per share increased more than 50 percent, and selling, general, and administrative costs declined from 13 percent to 10 percent.

On the other hand… Because numerous factors impact overall business success, it is difficult to tie a no-email program directly to corporate performance.

On the one hand… Atos did not achieve its goal of zero internal email by the end of 2013.

On the other hand… The average number of internal email messages dropped from 100 per mailbox per week in 2011 to fewer than 40 by the end of 2013, a 60 percent reduction. The company has an 80 percent reduction targeted for mid-2014. Also, 200 Atos processes have been certified email-free, to which it attributes almost one-third of its overall email reduction. In addition, Atos now has more than 74,000 employees in blueKiwi participating in more than 7,446 communities, posting approximately 300,000 times per month and viewing almost 2 million pages per month.

The company also has several “success stories.” For example, on the Brazil service desk, customer issues are resolved 30 percent faster, with both happier customers and happier agents.

Or, as Gartner puts it, “There is evidence of strong social collaboration adoption and numerous success stories that, in aggregate, could have impacted overall corporate performance.”

We think that means it’s good.

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