A specter is haunting the enterprise — the specter of email. Where is the knowledge worker who has not felt the oppressive weight of email overload? Where is the business leader who has not complained bitterly of the wastefulness and productivity drain?

Two things result from this situation:

        I.            Email is depicted as a disease that must be eradicated, or a foe to be defeated.

      II.            Vendors and consultants offer fever reducers, defensive tactics, and visions of a utopian future free of email.

Last week the English language news sites were atwitter (in both senses) with the announcement by Atos CEO Thierry Breton that the French technology company intends to ban internal email usage among its 74,000 employees within 18 months. Perhaps thanks to my last blog post on email, The Independent called for an interview on "the death of email." The BBC did a radio debate, but obstinately refused to change their programming to accommodate my schedule.

(I say English language because Breton’s announcement was duly covered in French and German when he first made it last February. So much for a flat world and instant global communications.)

Breton claims that only 10% of the 200 emails a typical employee receives daily are “useful,” and 18% is spam. He likens email to “pollution” in the working environment, and says Atos is “taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organizations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.” Well, it took most organizations at least 150 years to attend to environmental pollution, so we can be happy the campaign to sop up toxic email is moving more rapidly.

But it’s telling that Atos’s anti-email effort is an old-fashioned, top-down, you’ll-do-it-because-the-boss-says-so directive. Atos’s relatively young workforce reportedly is warm to the idea. But according to Forrester’s last survey of US information workers (and the numbers would not vary significantly for EMEA), 85% use email daily. The next most popular communication method, instant messaging, came in at 28%. And the enterprise 2.0 social technologies (wikis, blogs, internal social networks, and internal micro blogging) that are supposed to be revolutionizing the workplace? None of them exceeded 5% and the four of them together amounted to only 15%.

There’s a very real danger, then, that if an organization like Atos files “email bankruptcy” (Lawrence Lessig’s term for deleting your inbox), it may instead amount to communication suicide.

Email pollutes work environments and drowns employees not because it exists but because it is abused. We could have a long debate (and I hope we will in the comments) about what constitutes proper use and inappropriate abuse of email, but here is a simple guideline: Try to remember that email is electronic mail. Would you use mail to collaborate on a document with six colleagues? (“Please mark your suggested changes on the report, make six copies, and mail them back to each of the people cc’d on this message.”) Would you use mail to determine when a bunch of people were free for a one-hour meeting? Would you use mail for instant messaging?

As Atos’s managing partner Rob Price said on the BBC broadcast, the whole point is to choose the right form of communication. But that means if you have an email problem (and who doesn’t), the best answer probably isn’t to ban email. (Turning away itinerant minstrels at the city gate didn’t defeat the Black Death.) Rather you should develop a comprehensive communication and collaboration strategy that:

·         Identifies communication requirements and flows in specific business processes

·         Provisions the appropriate types of communication support for a given requirement, considering response time (synchronous or asynchronous), interaction model (one to one, one to many, many to many), and indirect communication such as what Andrew McAfee calls “narrating your work” in an activity stream

·         Establishes governance, standards, and guidelines for each means of communication

·         Implements carrot and/or stick incentives to drive adoption and ensure appropriate use

Email will have its place in such a strategy. That place will be considerably smaller than it is in most organizations today. And it may well be supplemented and enhanced by the solutions from vendors such as ActionBase, harmon.ie, HyperOffice, and Xobni that make email more dynamic, social, or better integrated with other collaboration solutions such as Microsoft SharePoint, and generally knit email more firmly into business processes. (And, as Don Neely remarked on my last email post with regard to Lotus Notes, the email vendors themselves are responding with richer functionality and a business orientation.)

Email isn’t evil. In fact, it’s an inherently good thing, which, like many good things, can be damaging and costly if used inappropriately or excessively.

What do you think? Would you welcome a ban on email in your company? Could the business function without it?