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.