Friday, 17 February 2012

eMail at Thirtysomething ....

A story from a couple of months ago keeps popping into my head so today's feature contains some thoughts on the place of eMail some 30 years on.

Ray Tomlinson sent the first network eMail in the autumn of 1971. Ray was a programmer developing a time sharing system for large computers that formed part of the ARPANET project. Local electronic mail had been around for 10 years or so but Ray modified the software, named SNDMSG, so messages could be sent to a username at a computername. Electronic mail could now travel across the ARPANET network to remote (rather than just local) users.

Using the 'at' symbol ( @ ) was his inspiration!
I love stories about the origins of things we take for granted. When asked why he did it he says "mostly because it seemed like a neat idea" - fantastic!

Bizarrely, the @ symbol has become a work of art acquired by the Museum of Modern Art as part of its Architecture and Design collection in 2010 (see: You can't make this stuff up :-)

I digress.

The story that started me thinking about the role of eMail surfaced in December 2011:
Atos boss Thierry Breton defends his internal email ban (see:

Health and Wellbeing champions in the IT services company suggested banning internal eMail as a way of improving working conditions. A study showed employees were receiving an average of 100 internal emails and were spending up to 20 hours a week checking and answering eMail. The employees estimnated that only 15% of messages were useful.

From it's beginning, eMail was a 'killer app'; easy, quick and cheap. A great way to keep in contact with people all over the world and in other organisations. Internal eMaill however often has different motivations where messages represent proof that you've done your job, that you have 'communicated', defence against others etc. As a means of group communication there are drawbacks. It isn't easy to revisit who said what when, you need a threaded discussion group for that. Even the 'streams' of Web 2 tools are difficult to follow (these however are often more like 'Waiting for Godot' where largely unrelated statements masquerade as discussion and the end point never comes).

Atos are carrying out a pilot with 500 staff (of their 80,000 employees) using new tools such as a cloud computing environment, social networks, instant messaging, micro blogging, document sharing to create a knowledge community. After 18 months, the company is close to having everything in hand to make the change away from internal eMail which should be completed by Feb 2014.

Although a fraction of the size, my organisation is large and getting larger with 2 mergers in 3 years, my experience of internal eMail echoes that of Atos. One of the projects I'm working on at present is trying to develop the digital literacy across the organisation by promoting the use of the sort of tools described above. Progress is slow. Whatever the barriers, staff are reluctant to engage with internal discussion groups and digital workspaces. Maybe having internal eMail is too easy an alternative or maybe our organisation is too old (the average age for Atos is 35)?

I'll let you know if we have a breakthrough.
I've got my fingers crossed hoping for a 'Ray Tomlinson moment'.


PS Should that have been R@y Tomlinson?

No comments:

Post a Comment