How to overcome the “e-mail as a default” mindset

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read the 9 Types of Collabohaters. All throughout my career, I’ve dealt with a veritable bouillabaisse of folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t wean themselves from e-mail. This might have been understandable and even acceptable in 1998 when affordable, user-friendly, and powerful communications alternatives didn’t exist. Nearly two decades later, however, no one can credibly make that case.

I don’t advocate the eradication of email in Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It, but surely there are better tools to collaborate than a technology rooted in carbon-copy memos. (Think Mad Men.)

All fair, but how does an organization actually get its employees to, you know, actually use these tools?

Better hiring

When I hear about recalcitrant employees, I often wonder whether the organization itself is to blame. Think of two questions:

  • Do you collaborate with others?
  • Tell me about the specific technologies and tools that you have used to communicate with others in your previous jobs?

The first question is bland and doesn’t invite a true discussion. The second, along with probing, allows the interviewing to determine if the candidate is paying lip service to the notion of true collaboration.

Awareness of the problem

Of course, many organizations mistakenly think that the e-mail-laden status quo is just fine, and a great deal of research supports that notion. Matt Richtel of the New York Times cites new research showing that

text-based communications may make individuals sound less intelligent and employable than when the same information is communicated orally. The findings imply that old-fashioned phone conversations or in-person visits may be more effective when trying to impress a prospective employer or, perhaps, close a deal.

A critical mass of employees within an organization needs to understand the fundamental limitations of e-mail. Unless and until that happens, expect overflowing inboxes and confused employees.

Accountability—up to and including termination

What happens when employees pooh-pooh new tools and revert to e-mail? The answer reveals a great deal about an organization’s culture. Far too frequently, conversations ultimately wind up in e-mail, not in tools that enable superior search, efficiency, and discovery. Even worse, employees aren’t sanctioned for creating separate threads in individual inboxes, ones that contravene the very intent of these new collaboration applications. This is a real problem.

A friend of mine relayed a story of a newly hired employee (call her Anna here) who refused to participate in conversations in her organization’s new “enterprise social network.” After several warnings, Anna refused to budge. She was only comfortable with e-mail, not a newfangled application that she never used. Rather than learn it, Anna dug her heels in. Her lack of participation severely hurt team members and her entire department. Eventually, her company let her go.

Simon says

Culture is a fickle beast. As management guru Peter Drucker once famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Truer words have never been spoken. Foolish is the CXO who believes that technologies implement themselves. All else being equal, a strong culture that embraces new and better ways of doing things will beat one that refuses to embrace the present, never mind the future.


What say you?

Post by Phil Simon

Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology authority. He is the award-winning author of seven management books, most recently Message Not Received. He consults organizations on matters related to communications, strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, NBC, CNBC, Inc. Magazine, BusinessWeek, The Huffington Post, Quartz, The New York Times, Fox News, and many other sites.