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Saturday, September 18, 2010

A World Without E-mail: One Man’s Vision of a Social Workplace

Luis Suarez has a dream, and it’s one that many of us with our overloaded inboxes could well buy in to — a world without e-mail.
In fact, it could be argued that Suarez is living the dream. In less than three years, he’s been able to reduce 90% of his incoming e-mail by communicating through social software, and he works full-time for IBM while living in the Canary Islands. The last six years of his 13-year IBM career have been spent working remotely from Gran Canaria, a place which he describes as “a paradise island,” and not just because his boss is 6,000 kilometers away.
So how does a man who works remotely for a major tech company manage to virtually eliminate his e-mail, and why does his mission even exist? We caught up with Suarez and asked.

Under his official title of Knowledge Manager, Community Builder & Social Computing Evangelist in the IBM Software Group division, Suarez promotes the use of social software for enterprise. But in 2008, he decided to take the promotion a bit further by actively showing colleagues how much more productive they could be using social tools on the web, instead of more traditional methods of intra-company communication.

“Around two and a half years ago in my role of software evangelism, one of the main hurdles we were hearing from people is … they perceive this software as another set of tools on top of what they were already using,” Suarez tells us. “They had this feeling that, you’re asking me to spend more time online with Twitter,Facebook and whatever the internal social software applications were.”
Suarez saw this as a challenge and decided he needed to prove to his colleagues that social software was the answer and not the problem. Two and a half years ago he began “a little experiment.”
“As a remote employee, I’m wanted to prove to everyone that I could keep working for the company without using e-mail, relying almost … exclusively on social software tools to communicate daily with my team members.”
His plan was to show his coworkers just how dependent they really were on e-mail, emphasizing how many times a day they were compelled to check it, and proving that it was no longer a productivity tool, but a procrastinator’s best friend.
He acknowledges that times have changed. Ten years ago, e-mail was absolutely necessary for business interactions. Yet in the last two and a half years, he’s advocated for social software to replace e-mail as the go-to communication method.
Rather than restricting file and data sharing conversations to personal inboxes, Suarez persuades employees to first share data more openly behind company firewalls, and then as they ease into the concept (and if it’s relevant), share it on wider social services.
“I’ve kept track of progress,” he says. “I’ve gone from 30 to 40 e-mails a day to an average of just 17 per week. Most of those are one-on-one private conversations, for which e-mail is still probably the best tool for anything sensitive or confidential.”

This is his proof, he says. The numbers show that social software isn’t about adding more work and stress, but looking for smarter ways to get the job done.
With technology changing rapidly, it’s worthwhile to wonder if ten years down the line, e-mail may still be as prominent in our lives as it is today.
“We will still have e-mail in ten years,” says Suarez. “I don’t want to kill all e-mail, but I want to help people re-purpose it. We will see traditional tools like e-mail redesigned to be used for what it was originally designed for.”
For Suarez, the e-mail of the future will look something like this:
“You get an alert, telling you how and where you can go and grab content … it won’t just be a notification system, but a read-write opportunity with the option to engage back so that information is no longer stuck in an inbox.”
While his work focuses on helping businesses make the most of social software, he has shared his how-to advice with us so that individuals can take steps to reduce the amount of e-mail they receive.

1. Don’t Reply

If you want to stop receiving so much e-mail, the number one rule is don’t reply to it. The more you reply, the more you will get back. If you break that chain, you are already on a good path to kill most of the e-mail you get.

2. Study Your Inbox

Next, study your inbox. Evaluate the kind of personal interactions that are taking place there. For example, you may find out that you subscribe to a hundred newsletters and you don’t read any of them.
After you’ve studied the way you use your inbox, try to group e-mails together into categories — newsletters, Q&As, e-mails from family members, etc.

3. Tackle One Area a Week

After you’ve evaluated you intake, slowly move one of those groups away from your inbox. Don’t try to cover them all in one go, because it will be too much.
One week, unsubscribe from newsletters and try and find alternative sources such as a feed reader or relevant Twitter accounts.
You may find that you are bombarded with e-mail questions from colleagues, and that you get one particular question 40 times from 40 different people in one month.
So the next week, sort out the Q&A. The way to deal with that is to set up a blog offering the answers. The blog will be indexed by Google, and your answers will be available to everyone out there. This means you are no longer part of the bottle neck, and you are helping people to feed themselves with the information that they need.
“Some people say to me, but you are lucky, you’re [at] a big IT company,” concludes Suarez. “It may seem easy for a big company, but with the huge amounts of options we have out there — all the various social software tools — there is no longer an excuse.”

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