Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Business
30 March 2011

Is social networking killing email?

It could be game@over for trusty electronic mail.

By Jason Stamper

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that we were wondering whether email should be spelled e-mail or email – it was that novel. But not only is the younger generation eschewing email for Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging or SMS, but the venerable electronic mail has its detractors in the world of business, too.

Electronic mail has been around since the Sixties, first being used on networks that were forerunners to the internet: ARPANET, CSNet and so on. But interoperability between different networks remained a challenge, and it wasn’t until the development of the web that email really took off. The hows and whys, and the fact that email was actually an important tool in the development of the web itself, are all really rather boring so let’s not dwell on them here.

The point is that last month the CEO of one of the world’s largest IT services firms, Atos Origin, said that he wants the company to be rid of email inside of three years, describing one by-product of the electronic communication technology as information “pollution”.

“The volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business, with managers spending between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails,” said Atos’s Thierry Breton. “We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives. We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organisations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the Industrial Revolution.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Breton certainly has a point: the firm noted that the average worker gets 200 emails per day, of which 18 per cent are spam. Meanwhile, middle managers spend over 25 per cent of their time searching for information.

Rob Price, head of IT leadership at Atos Consulting, told me that Breton is deadly serious about getting rid of email inside three years. But what will it be replaced by? “We will use a range of enabling technologies: instant messaging, voice, video conferencing,” Price says.

But hang on, what about the fact that not every corporation is going to go in the same direction? Indeed, Atos may find itself in a small minority of firms that actually scrap email altogether. Will it not find itself ostracised, unable to communicate with key partners and clients?

“We have a personalised portal for whoever it is you are trying to interact with – that’s how we will interact with the external world,” says Price. So Atos staffers will still be able to receive email? “We will undoubtedly continue to receive email,” Price says, “but the intention is that there won’t be email on every desk, but a personalised portal that presents information in the right way for each individual. That might mean there is a translation from email.”

Not everyone is convinced. B G Srinivas is head of Europe at another global IT services firm, Infosys. He told me that the Atos move is a little extreme. “It seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “My view is that any technology can be a challenge or an opportunity depending on how you use it. We have email, but we also have knowledge management portals, instant messaging, and so on.

“We wouldn’t advise clients to do away with email necessarily, but if they are having issues with it to look at what the underlying cause is,” Srinivas says. “It may be about a lack of governance, poor practices, or what have you. Email itself, though, is just a tool – it’s all about what you do with it.”

Atos’s Price believes that Atos is not the only firm wanting rid of email, however. “We have had companies coming to us and asking us that question – how they can become email-free,” he says. “We are moving to different ways of communicating. I’ve been using instant messaging for ten years. I communicate through text, the phone, social media. We’re absolutely seeing the paradigms of Facebook and Twitter coming into the enterprise.”

For Atos, this is the beginning of the end for email. In the corporate world, the firm argues that instant messaging, phone calls, video conferencing, knowledge portals and the like are more effective and less “polluting” ways of communicating. “Email is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business,” insists Atos’s Breton.

A similar trend can surely be seen in the world of personal communication. Particularly among younger generations, there is something really rather arcane about old-fashioned electronic mail, which arrives in an inbox on a PC. Social networking is replacing that sort of communication for many, while others rely increasingly on instant messaging or SMS messages on their mobile phones and other gadgets.

But I think it’s too early to write email’s obituary just yet. There’s nothing else quite so ubiquitous or versatile. Besides, many thought email would kill the fax, yet that still hasn’t come to pass. True, most faxes may now be sent via internet protocols just like email, but that’s another really rather dull aside. Let’s just say that if email is dead, I say: “Long live email.”

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review (CBR).