Will service automation sound e-mail's death knell? Indian CIOs debate.

Is email dead? Well, it really depends on which Indian CIO you ask.

A recently released report commissioned by KPMG and ServiceNow has re-sparked the debate. The report, Move Over Email: Service Management Brings Automation to the Enterprise, points out that service automation is set to replace e-mail. According to the study, nine out of 10 IT professionals say that many business processes commonly transacted through e-mail could be better run by service automation.

It also revealed that an astounding 98 percent of respondents said IT can leverage the service model to help improve the quality and efficiency of different departments such as HR and facilities by automating their service delivery processes. IT professionals identified a clear opportunity to deliver greater efficiencies to their organizations by replacing antiquated e-mail-based request processes with service automation.

E-mail will Prevail

But not everyone is convinced that e-mail can be phased out. Shikha Rai, senior director-IT and HR, Canon India is convinced that service automation can never replace e-mail. "At best, it can complement e-mail. For fast communication e-mail is the most effective. E-mail is as essential and basic as, say, electricity. It has its own space and cannot be replaced," she says.

That said, she says that process automation is a must-have. Whatever can be automated should be automated. Any process that has an approval mechanism, is a good candidate for workflow automation, she says, including expense claims, travel approvals, and purchase requisitions.

"If we rely only on e-mail then simple requests can go unattended. For instance, a ticket log to IT or cab booking request to the admin staff. If these processes are automated it will bring both efficiency and transparency," she says.

T.G. Dhandapani, CIO, TVS Motors, echoes this sentiment. Service automation, he says, can reduce the use of e-mail, but cannot replace it. "Email has its own advantages. It is a primary means of external correspondence. Service automation cannot replace e-mail," he says.

CIOs say that e-mail's serious staying power is derived from how deeply it is entrenched into user work habits. "E-mail has gone into the nerve of an individual and even a small outage creates lot of disturbance among users. In this part of the world, e-mail is also used for future reference," says Ravi Sharma, GM-IT, Actavis. "[Service automation] can replace e-mail to some extent but not in toto," he says.

E-mail is Stale

Not so long ago, Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos, and a former French finance minister, whipped up a storm of criticism, when he called for a "zero e-mail" policy within Atos. The radical initiative was widely derided as impractical and unworkable.

But Breton had realized that an overload of e-mail was crippling efficiency. He contended that only 10 percent of the 200 e-mails his employees receive on an average day are useful.

From May 2014, Atos abolished e-mail for internal communication. "Zero mail is a lighthouse position. It's a massive cultural change program," says Avinash Velhal, Group CIO-IMEA, Atos.

Velhal recounts his experience as the company transitioned to a zero e-mail strategy. "Atos had e-mail-based internal processes, so when it had to implement the 'zero e-mail' policy the organization studied those processes, got people to look into them, and eliminated mail-based processes.

"Now, Atos is using an internal social network called blueKiwi.  We have reduced our dependency on mails considerably," he says.

According to Velhal, eliminating e-mail has introduced benefits. "The strategy has dramatically improved productivity, reduced distraction, and increased transparency and trust within the company," says Velhal.

Velhal and the folks in Atos aren't alone in their belief that e-mail can be replaced.

"The proper implementation of service automation can replace the barrage of e-mails that flow in and out of mailboxes," says Anand Iyer, CIO, NCDEX.

While an e-mail is a piece of point-to-point communication, a request made in a service automation tool makes it available to all concerned.

"A single request in service automation enters a new record that enriches the data required to give to-the-point MIS. Tracking and tracing becomes easier and this avoids countless phone calls to the service desk by an enthusiastic user to find out the status of his or her request. Service personnel welcome the transparency it brings to the organization. Supervisors are also happy about the fact that dashboards give real-time updates of the service levels, not only to them, but the entire organization," Iyer says.

"At NCDEX, the entire process of SDLC and change requests is through service automation and it has bought about an atmosphere of transparency and collaboration between IT and business users," he says.

Sharma believes that Employees Self Service (ESS) and Managers Self Service (MSS) provide visibility among application users like HRMS and other business applications which requires approval in hierarchy. "Service automation also creates transparency in the whole process and builds a very good knowledge bank," he says.