Email – No surrender?

I think it’s time for Enterprise 2.0 enthusiasts to give up their frontal assault on email – their war on words (it’s your father’s technology, it’s a dinosaur, it’s where knowledge goes to die) and their attempts to build and/or deploy replacement technologies.

I say this for two main reasons:

Email has some positive attributes. As I wrote a while back, “Email is freeform, multimedia (especially with attachments), WYSIWYG, easy to learn and use, platform independent, social, and friendly to mouse-clickers and keyboard-shortcutters alike.” It can be used effectively by everyone at the consultancy, from a junior associate with a laptop in a hotel to Blackberry-addicted partner hopping among airports. It works well enough on both big and small screens. I admire Luis Suarez for his experiment in living his professional life without email, but I don’t want to replicate it.

Email is the incumbent technology. It’s beneficiary of the 9X effect, and so hard to uproot. It’s the collaboration technology of choice for lots of knowledge workers, particularly older ones. And these older folk are generally the people in charge. They’re the ones responsible for defining, executing, and delivering the work of the organization. This means that they get to call this shots, and if they want to communicate with colleagues and receive in-process and finished work product via email, they will.

I have never mentioned that email is dead. Quite the opposite. I still see plenty of value in using email as a communication tool for one-on-one confidential / sensitive exchanges as well as to process calendaring and scheduling events altogether.

However, during that time that I have been doing this, I’m now more convinced than ever before that for the rest of the various different interactions email is as bad as it can get.

I want to be clear: I agree with Scoble, Luis Suarez, and many others that it’s possible to much better than all email, all the time. I’m trying to make three points with this post and its predecessor. First, that all email, all the time yields many problems but also one benefit: one-stop shopping for all collaboration activities. Second, that that benefit is highly valued by busy senior managers. And third, that these managers get to call the shots for the collaborations they’re involved in.

Let me sharpen that last point by floating a hypothesis about digital collaboration and immodestly naming it after myself:

McAfee’s hypothesis: Within organizations, collaboration technologies are dictated by the most powerful person involved in the collaboration.

Many years ago now I published a short paper, titled Living with Email, that suggested organisations contribute to the problem of misusing email (rather than me calling for its elimination) by:

  • Failing to provide alternative and more effective communication channels;
  • Creating a culture of secrecy and information hoarding; and
  • Not providing the right policies and training for staff on how to use the communication technologies already available to them.

Not withstanding McAfee’s points (which are true – although I would tweak his hypothesis slightly to better define ‘powerful person’ and also accommodate the issue of accessibility), I think my arguments still stand today with one important change – the inbox makes a poor interface for a enterprise social computing environment. But since ultimately taking advantage of enterprise social computing will be a choice, clinging to email needs to be treated as a symptom, not a cause, for a bigger set of challenges.

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7 thoughts on “Email – No surrender?

  1. Good article James, I’m in the midst of ironing out my own views on how email keeps its place in multi-modal world of communication and collaboration. If and when I post it will be via Posterous too – very apt I think. 🙂

  2. Nice article, captures a lot of the recent thoughts on e-mail. I have been thinking on this topic a lot recently, and I do believe that e-mail is a poor choice for collaborative communication. However, what about e-mail as a capture tool? You are using Posterous, so obviously e-mail is a useful capture tool. What about building something like Posterous behind the firewall? Use e-mail as a capture tool, and develop a web backend to display and collaborate on the things that are captured. I am just starting think on these lines, but it seems to make sense (especially for capturing information for personal use).

  3. @Sean – In relation to Posterous, I really use email as a publishing tool rather than a capture tool. I was a big fan of Windows Live Writer (WLW) on Windows in the past, but since moving to Mac I haven’t found a comparable tool that I was really happy with. Given a choice, I would use it over email. These days I also make a lot of use of the ‘Share on Posterous’ bookmarklet and have installed the Posterous iPhone app, but haven’t used it seriously yet.Having said that, email is universally available and I think Posterous have really tapped into that well. But I think that reflects more that they understand social software design. Blogger, for example, does support blog posts via email and mobile phone but just not as elegantly IMHO.BTW I did read your blog post, Posterous for the Enterprise? Leveraging e-mail for content sharing. I actually think the Tumblr model is perhaps close to what you are thinking. Posterous has the one-to-many publishing smarts worked out but Tumblr has the option for many-to-one, which I think makes for a better life (or work) caching application. You might also find this old post of mine interesting, Design considerations for a generic activity stream desktop tool (on my old blog).

  4. I agree with you on “organisations contribute to the problem of misusing email” – there’s nothing wrong with email as a tool, but most people are *using* it wrong (or rather using email for more tasks than it was originally intended for).Email is an excellent alternative to the phone; non-obtrusive, and the message waits for you until you are ready to read it. Email is also excellent for sending a message to a group of people.However, email is *not* a collaboration tool, or an instant message tool (even if many people treat it as such by checking their email every 2 minutes) or a discussion tool.When all you have is a hammer…- http://www.ppcsoft.com/blog/social-media.asp

  5. @James Yep, love WLW it just works. I did some informal polling around the office regarding the use of the Facebook bookmarklet. FB seems to be our most used network, and most people did not know that the bookmarklet existed. I had been thinking that bookmarklets would be a good way to go, but I now think that for a big group of non-technical people e-mail is an easier way to publish content. What I like about Posterous v. Tumblr is that they have the idea of sharing a single “post” out to a variety of services. Once those services are configured the person sending in the “post” does not have to be concerned with how or where the data will be saved. It just gets done. I think that is appealing when dealing with people who do not want to deal with the small details.

  6. @James I think there is a key concept here around culture.For a long time in many organisations, passing the e-mail buck is the way to clear the decks and say “job’s done”. When I e-mail you, I have a reliable trail that shows it went from me to you and you’re now responsible for the next action. Until we can reliably show that our Enterprise 2.0 systems have this kind of authority for users – that me blogging about it, updating a wiki etc. is sufficient for you to know you need to act then e-mail will remain. Until I can be confident that in an E2.0 consumer centric world (as opposed to a distributor push like e-mail) that you consume the content you have to, then e-mail will remain. It’s even more subtle than that, e-mail lets me make sure you consume (or at least are responsible for consuming) the content *I think* you have to, rather than E2.0 where you have a lot more choice and degrees of freedom.I’ve blogged a little more extensively on this here http://timbull.com/email-game-on-and-the-case-for-people-centric

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