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TGIF, Can We End Inbox Tyranny?

If I had to rank the top five annoying time wasters at work, there would be a few that jostle in and out of my short list—airline delays, freeway jam-ups and meetings with more than 10 attendees—but one that would make the list every time is finding my email inbox clogged with non essential communications. Apparently, Atos CEO Thierry Breton feels the same way, because last week he announced a total phase out of email at the French information technology company he leads. After doing an analysis, Atos discovered that employees were receiving an average of 200 emails per day, but only 10% were immediately useful and 18%–almost twice as much—was actually spam. Based on this finding, Breton resolved to completely eliminate internal email use within 18 months, relying instead on messaging and Facebook style social media to help employees communicate and interact efficiently.

Breton has effectively commanded the employees of an $11.5 billion dollar company with offices in 42 companies to do it the fast way—with a mobile device. True, I can use IM and social media from a giant, ungainly, inconvenient desktop or laptop, but do I want to? And does it make me more productive to be tethered to a desk or at the mercy of Wi-Fi coverage? At bottom, Atos’ decision is a value judgement: Mobility is empowering. And when you empower workers they are more efficient, more effective and have more opportunity to innovate and collaborate in problem solving.

Eliminating email may seem a startling course for an executive to pursue, perhaps a naïve overreaction by someone who just can’t stand seeing spam beat the filters and make it into the inbox. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was a data driven decision by a sophisticated, globally competitive enterprise. While Atos has an agenda in this—they plan to market some of the communication and collaboration tools that will support an email-less future—Breton is a visionary. He is inexorably molding Atos into a mobile workforce, proactively adapting to mobile connected lifestyles in which his workers already engage,both at and away from the job.

Interestingly, Breton, who was the French Minister of Finance before taking up his current role, claims he hasn’t sent an email in over three years. He has a deep conviction that much of the ‘data’ generated in the course of a day at work is not information, but instead is noise—a form of pollution that makes it impossible for people to focus on tasks at hand, that makes valid, actionable information harder to spot, and that needlessly encroaches on private lives.

I think an interesting point arises from this observation. Since the dawn of mobile apps, people have been struggling with how to shoehorn desktop UIs and applications onto tiny devices with small displays and limited data storage. Maybe this is going about it entirely the wrong way. What if the small screens and other so called ‘limitations’ of smartphones are actually a ticket to a better destination? Perhaps mobile devices force more succinct communications and information set precisely because of the mobile format.

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