Is there a future for email?


French company, Atos, cause a stir recently by repeating again its intention to ban internal email from 2014 that was announced earlier in the year. There has been a fair bit of misunderstanding on the Web about this so I suggest you read this BBC interview with ATOS CEO, Thierry Breton, that explains his thinking behind this strategy.

Most of the critical responses to this idea have expressed an incredulous attitude towards the idea of eliminating what most people consider to be a critical business tool (remember the reaction to the BlackBerry outage a few months ago?). In some respects, many of the arguments against banning email are reasonable:

  • Can you ban email if your customers and clients are using it? (to be fair to ATOS, they aren’t planning on banning external email).
  • Rather than banning email, users just need to manage their inboxes better.

However, on balance I think there is good reason for aiming to effectively ban email. But rather than outlawing it, we need to reinvent how we utilise email as a software protocol and also the ageing paradigm of the inbox, particularly where the assumed effectiveness is built on false assumptions around utility and information ownership. At a software level, email offers a number of important features – such as:

  • Interoperability and extendability.
  • It can work offline (although this is becoming less important).
  • For the sender, it costs no more to send messages to 1 or many people where ever they are.
  • Both sender and receivers can store and organise copies of messages exchanged independently of each other.
  • Email addresses act a simple proxies for identification.
  • Email accounts can be created for individuals, groups and also non-human systems.

These features provide a great deal of utility, although we can look at each feature and find many negatives too – for example:

  • Email standards and extensions aren’t implemented homogeneously, so users may have problems reading or processing an email.
  • When you go online after an extended absence, your inbox is flooded with new messages.
  • People send many messages that for the receiver are just transient or ambient information – but your inbox treats them as all the same.
  • The independent nature of email messages contributed to fragmentation of the information chain, making it hard to know who knows what and people who should know made end up getting left out of the loop.
  • An email address doesn’t actually tell you anything about the user, who they are or why you should trust that identity.
  • High volumes of automatically generated notification emails from non-human systems contribute to information overload.

In summary, we can say that email works as a pragmatic solution, but not without creating numerous problems for individual users and organisations a like. As a result there many solutions out there that help us to deal with everything from email processing to email data management. Some solutions are technical in nature, like help desk ticketing software or records management systems, but others focus on the user as problem and attempt to fix individual behaviours. But ultimately none offer a way of making email the perfect tool and it will take a leap to improve how we communicate and collaborate.

So, what is stopping us taking this leap? Thinking about this from a social experience design perspective, I think there are four key issues that need to be addressed to create something better than the email we use today:

  1. Move to open work as the default. Email provides users with a simple system of directing messages at people – this falls into a mental information sharing model of open only by exception that is the default in most organisations, but it is also supported by a false perception that email is owned by the sender and private if we restrict the names included on the To, CC and BCC lists. Of course, this doesn’t mean we stop supporting some private communication entirely!
  2. Everything is Miscellaneous. Centrally designed information systems that enforce fixed, common models for organising information and work process don’t work. These were designed with good intentions, but they aren’t effective and only encourage the use of personal information stores.
  3. Collaborate by staying apart. We need the same ease of interoperability between different social business software platforms that email offers – I shouldn’t be forced to use your system, when I have my own, and neither should you.
  4. Who are you? We need to shift from email addresses as identifiers towards a model where organisations can offer a better user identifier and profile that will enable messaging to take place through the right channel or system.

Its entirely possible that email protocols will continue to play a role in this new environment, but I think it will also depend on other Web 2.0 protocols like Activity Streams, Open Social, and ATOM. This actually hints that the death of email will come incrementally, if we wait for the technology to rise up and present better alternatives. In practice, the tide of data created by other social business software tools will make the traditional email inbox an unsustainable proposition.

The water is rising slowly right now, but don’t doubt that the inbox will need to be reinvented at some point – the question is really when and how, not if.

BTW if you found this interesting, you might enjoy this presentation, Architected for Collaboration.

Image credit: Inbox Art CC BY-SA

How DEC NSW teaches its staff about using social media in the workplace

The Department of Education & Communities in NSW has published a range of materials during 2011 addressing various aspects of social media and how people working in this department can and should make use of it. Above is a video introduction to their internal microblogging tools, Maang.

Their social media policy has links to more resources, including an An introduction to Digital Citizenship for the workplace.

Confluence 4.1 makes it even easier to be a wiki ninja

Back in September, with the release of Atlassian Confluence 4.0, I thought the new text editor was one of the particular highlights of this major version update.

Now with the release of 4.1 this week, there are further improvements to the new rich text editor including:

  • Build richer pages, faster with Autoconvert (it automatically embeds content like Confluence pages, YouTube videos, Skitch images, Flickr photo streams, Vimeo videos, and Google maps when you paste a link). 
  • Enhance documentation with Image Effects (see the screenshot). 
  • Make bulk changes to pages with Find & Replace.

As well as enhancements to Confluence, the fast pace of ongoing improvements to Team Calendars also continues.

Finally, don’t forget to get your Confluence Origami Necktie, a fashionable quick-reference guide. Make it, snap a pic and share it on Twitter with the #confluencetie hashtag 🙂

Beware of false infographics

We’re floating in data. Our phones, computers and devices are spinning off more data than anyone knows what to do with. At the same time, however, we’re living in an attention economy where eyeballs are a currency, and enticing people to click on links or forward content through their social networks is the key to success. The result is an endless stream of half-baked infographics from marketers who could care less about the art and the science behind true data visualization.

Can these competing forces continue to coexist?

This has been the subject of a long running discussion on Dachis Group’s own internal microblogging network. Lets call a spade a spade: if it doesn’t meet the criteria of an infographic, then don’t claim it is one.

Hat tip Mark Owen.

Misconceptions about social software and knowledge workers

In the early days of Enterprise 2.0 (mid-2000s) enterprise social software was good at toolkit-style functionality. Blogs and wikis gave people useful frameworks and reference materials for doing bespoke tasks. But there wasn’t much functionality for businesses that run a lot of routinized process.

These early tools appealed to high-end consultancies, law firms, PR agencies, and tech startups, which lean towards more bespoke activities. I suspect that’s where people first got the idea that enterprise social software was for “knowledge workers.”

But social software has changed, and changed fast. In the past year, business has started to embrace social software for more routinized processes as well.

Michael Idinopulos highlights an important misconception that enterprise social software is only useful for certain industries or white collar professionals. I agree also that associating these technologies tightly with the concept of the knowledge worker also adds confusion (for the record, I’ve never agreed that Enterprise 2.0 was the evolution of KM).

I’ve certainly come across a number of examples in my own work this year that break that traditional view of where and how we apply these technologies. But, I also think we have barely scratched the surface.

I draw encouragement from the non-profit sector where we can more easily see evidence of service (re)design and social innovation at work. Examples such as the LIFE Programme and Patchwork show there is potential for a much richer dynamic that can impact the fundamentals of how we use IT to support people inside critical or complex business processes when they are working at scale. In fact, this goes beyond Idinopulos’ call to integrate the common enterprise social software patterns of activity stream and wikis – the focus is really about humanising IT systems.

Just as they are emerging in the non-profit sector, there are opportunities for the profit making enterprise to do the same in their respective domains. But they will only get there if we address the underlying misconceptions about social software and narrowing the use case to supporting the classic, office-based knowledge worker.

My panel discussion about KM on Sky News’ Technology Behind Business

Last week I was invited by Nigel Freitas to participate in a panel discussion about Knowledge Management (KM) for Sky News Australia’s Technology Behind Business show.

Technology Behind Business examines trends and analyses key IT concepts. Each week an expert panel focuses on one type of technology or strategy, explaining its use without the jargon, outlining the pros and cons and providing tips for all types of businesses. The panel in this episode included Felicity McNish from Woods Bagot and Gerhard Voster from Deloitte.

You can watch the entire panel discussion on the Sky News Website.

Cross posted from the Headshift | Dachis Group Asia Pacific blog.

If you are interested in this topic, I’ve written a reasonable amount about it over the years including a couple of book chapters and magazine articles – most of it accessible through my archive.

Of course, robust discussion on what KM is and if it failed is most welcome! 😉

Do we really need another basic guide to social media for government?

‘Social Media in Government: Hands-on Toolbox’ has been written to help practitioners who are setting up social media profiles and using the tools on a daily basis.  It has been written for public servants with limited experience using social media, but also offers tools and tips that will be useful for those practitioners who have been using social media for some time.

Along with a High-level Guidance document, the New Zealand government has released a toolbox guide to help their pubic servants use social media. Apparently they reused content from the UK (although not Australia?) and Gartner analyst, Andrea Di Maio, thinks its a pretty good guide.

Highlights in the toolbox for me are:

  • I like the distinction made between ‘Social networks’ and ‘Media-sharing networks’ (although IMHO, Flickr can be both). 
  • They attempt a balanced look at the Strengths and Weaknesses of the five types of social media addresses in the guide, rather than focusing on risk or over evangelising the benefits. 
  • The methodology of Finding, Assessing, Contributing and Tracking as a way to develop they approach to a particular tool.

Now they are quite upfront that this guide is for people with limited experience and it is impossible to distil knowledge of this medium into a single, static document. I know that, because I co-authored a Toolkit, for the Australia Government Gov 2.0 Taskforce in 2009.

Personally I think this kind of guide remains a double-edged sword. On one hand, we need to encourage people in government to get online. However, I don’t think the patterns of online engagement, tools or methods described in basic guides like this really help to create a deeper and more sustainable engagement with the concepts of open government, Government 2.0 or social media either. To quote Dominic Campbell, who said recently:

There aren’t enough of us working to transform, challenge and change the inside of government. Not enough taking on the really sticky issues beyond relatively quick and easy wins, such as transit data or street-scene related apps. This needs to change before anything can be said to have gone mainstream. Disclaimer: this is exactly what we’re looking to do with apps like PatchWorkHQ and CasseroleHQ, starting to hone in on priority, challenging, socially important and costly areas of government, such as child protection and supporting older people to live better independent lives. The journey is far longer and harder, but (we’re hoping) even more rewarding.

Lets stop focusing on examples of Government using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Instead, lets spread ideas that can really have impact.

This is something Dominic and I discussed at GovCampNSW a few weeks ago. Really, understanding the technology isn’t the barrier and publishing more and more basic guides won’t change that.