In a context of declining resources and increasing demands, what digital tools can help people to work most productively in an organization like the European Commission? How can we convince colleagues (and external partners) to change their habits and to engage with new solutions for online collaboration? These were some of the questions that emerged during a recent “Digital Competence Day” for Commission staff organized by our human resources department. I was pleased to be able to participate in some of the discussions from my current base in Seattle via video link, Twitter and Yammer.
Why Social Networks Are Better Than Emails For Enterprise Collaboration (shared by my colleague Claudio Nichele) highlights some of the weaknesses of email (valuable information is inaccessible for many colleagues, knowledge is lost when people leave or move jobs …) and outlines better alternatives for knowledge management and collaboration. Research by the Harvard Business School suggests that there is a productivity payoff for companies and organizations that embrace social media as an alternative to email. And Atos made headlines last year by announcing that it was aiming for a zero email strategy inside the company.
But, I think that it would be a mistake to think that email is going to go away altogether. Research by the Pew Research Center in the USA shows that email is still the most popular online activity (92% of internet users). And The Nielsen Company has found that email use is actually higher amongst heavy social media users rather than lower (see chart). Representatives of state and local government agencies at a meeting in Seattle a couple of months ago confirmed to me that, even though social media is on the rise, they still see email as one of the key channels for distributing real-time information to local people.
Email use is certainly changing, but the likelihood is that it will continue to exist alongside newer communication technologies in a “hybrid” environment (to borrow a concept from a forthcoming book The Hybrid Media System by Andrew Chadwick). In the workplace, this means that “knowledge workers” in organizations like the Commission will have to be capable of juggling with a range of digital tools (including email) for different tasks. And, in order to work effectively with ever-increasing quantities of information, we will all have to develop our skills in filtering and managing data across multiple platforms.
One of the things that I have learned through trying to study the psychology of digital media here at the University of Washington is that multitasking is a myth. The human brain can perform a controlled process (requiring attention and effort) and an automatic process (an acquired skill like walking or driving) at the same time, but it cannot perform several controlled processes at once. This means that email and other digital media that constantly solicit our active attention (instant messaging, text messages, Twitter, Yammer, Facebook etc…) can interfere with concentration. This is confirmed by research carried out a few years ago by Microsoft.
Dealing with information overload and competing demands on our attention is a key challenge for organizations like the Commission. Different departments can work together to support colleagues across the organization:
- Communication (by providing guidance and helping to identify which tools work best for which kind of task)
- IT (keeping pace with change and providing the technical solutions that people need to achieve their objectives)
- Human resources (helping people to upgrade their digital skills, like at the Commission’s recent digital competence day)
- Management (setting priorities and leading by example)