Email - let's not shoot the messenger

By Angela Ashenden posted 07-16-2013 09:59


It's become de rigueur to knock email, particularly with the growth of new, state-of-the-art social collaboration technologies that aim to overcome many of the challenges that email has. I think we all recognise that it has its faults - it's shocking for group collaboration activities such as group discussions and document sharing/collaboration, and it's the source of so much wasted time through having to wade through absurd volumes of (often irrelevant) messages.


But it is a love-hate relationship; though we continually knock it, the reality is that for knowledge workers it's where we spend a significant part of our day, and - as vendors of social collaboration or any email substitute technology will know - trying to wean people off it is ridiculously hard. But though this is an important reason why I believe that email is not going away anytime soon, it's not the only one. Email is a fantastic asynchronous communication tool; it is a great substitute for paper-based correspondence as well as fax-style communications. What's more, the maturity of the technology - and more importantly its technology standards - means that it doesn't matter which email platform you use, you can send an email to anyone else with an email address, and you can (generally) use whatever email client you want in order to send it. I don't care how successful social technologies become (and they will become very successful), there will still be a place for email, and so I get frustrated with stories where people advocate simply removing email as a way to drive adoption of alternatives (notably the Atos story from a few years back).


I think we need to approach this problem from a different perspective. By all means, let's develop and implement technologies that are better at doing some of the things that email really sucks at, but rather than slate email in the process, let's rebalance the scales, clarifying where email has value, and showing how other tools can do some things better. Better still, use email to drive adoption of these alternatives, for example through using email notifications that allow people to reply to a discussion thread in a social tool, without leaving their familiar email client. In fact, we're seeing more and more use of the email client as an extension of the social platform, with vendors embedding social features into email, so you can do everything from one place. As I discussed in my report, ultimately I see the email client becoming more of a collaboration client anyway, so what's the point in dragging users away from it; bring the capabilities to them. You'll find they're much more open to trying out new features in an environment where they're already comfortable. [Incidentally, this week's news about Telligent acquiring Zimbra I think is another example of how these worlds are colliding.] Another example of this integration is Jive's StreamOnce technology (which it acquired earlier this year), which allows email distribution lists to be integrated into your social activity stream, so that the discussion can continue even when people use different technologies.


There's lots going on here, and since the email giants Microsoft and IBM are heading steadily down this route, the pace is going to accelerate. So please, let's stop just knocking email and think sensibly about how to move things forward and help people collaborate more effectively.

#Collaboration #Adoption #E-mail #social #Collaboration


07-23-2013 07:13

It's hard for people that have been working with email for years to move away from it. Particularly when most people they work with also use email and for you to move to a social platform, they would also have to move there. Thus integrating email with social platforms would be an important enabler, but most social platforms don't integrate email and that is mostly because the sharing model is too different... The fact is that my kids don't use email (only exceptionally) and they'll probably keep it that way. It's a cultural shift and it will take time to kick in as the newer generations come to the market. So, email will probably be around for more a decade or so, but as PCs are losing sales for tablets, email will, in due time, start losing users for other more powerful means of collaboration.

07-23-2013 06:33

After several years as an advocate for enterprise social networks, I completely agree that the "email bad; social networking good" summary is far too simplistic. The reality is that email is the best tool for some things but, as you say, shockingly poor at others. So despite your title, I do think a lot of business email use needs shooting - but it needs sniper-like precision rather than a blunderbuss.
I've started publishing a series of 15 blog posts on the wider topic of how we communicate in business. Email has a part to play, but it needs to be a much smaller part that it plays today. The series is called The Business Communication Revolution and can be found at and @BizCommRev on Twitter.