I am firmly in the camp that sees email as an outdated technology, and one for which the utility for current day business processes is waning at best. I have seen commentary from the Web 2.0 community saying similar things, but I decided to send an unsolicited query out into cyberspace to see how broadly this position is held.
A few weeks ago, I posted a question asking if email is an endangered species in the technology jungle. I received a lot of responses. While the number of responses is not large enough to represent a statistically authoritative sample set, I found the feedback very interesting. In summary, here’s how it played out:
Group 1: “Blasphemer!… Are you nuts?”
This group of people took the time (which I appreciate) to write back to tell me they could hardly believe I’d ask such a silly question. Along with the responses came explanations for the position that email is great and is here to stay. Among those reasons were the fact that you can use it to send attachments (email as a file transfer mechanism), everybody uses it (ubiquity), and it allows one to thoughtfully pause to recompose drafts before sending (I’ll tag this as temporally distant). The group that thought I was crazy for asking the question accounted for over 40% of the responses.
Group 2: “Yes it’s probably dead, but until the current generation of users die off we’re probably stuck with it”
This group agreed with the premise that email is at least broken, or has in some way become flawed in its usefulness for current day needs. However, these people feel that we’re resigned to live with it for better or worse because of a mature critical mass of users that are dragging it along into the (near) future. This group accounted for roughly 30% of the responses.
Group 3: “Yah, you bet-cha it’s broken.”
These people seemed relieved to blow off steam to complain about the numerous ills of email. Among them are the high degree of overhead and infrastructure resources (costs) that are associated with the simple task of sending a message, the delivery mechanism for rapid proliferation of malware, the lack of temporal immediacy, poorly suited to facilitate collaboration, and of course the great white elephant- Spam.
On the Spam subject, some users volunteered some very interesting quantitative data. Ian Eiloart, who manages the email system at University of Sussex, said that 95% of incoming email is rejected as Spam. Of the remaining 5%, approximately 5% of that accepted email is also Spam.
Dennis Stevenson (http://blogs.ittoolbox.com/cio/original-thinking/archives/whats-in-my-inbox-21285) shared some interesting personal research and says that while he still uses email out of necessity, he’s shifted much of his communication to other Web 2.0 technologies that are more appropriate for exchange with users with whom he has some type of working relationship.
By the way, the Group 3 responses represented approximately 20% of my informal study.
Group 4: No strong opinion one way or another.
The last group of respondents did not have a strong opinion on whether email is a broken or dieing technology. I greatly appreciate these people taking the time to respond to my question, and they offered their perspective on the ways they use email for their daily jobs and personal correspondence.
So, what is there to say about all this? First of all, it came as a surprise to me that so many of the users who replied to my query strongly feel that email serves them well. I wouldn’t have guessed this, which again shows the value in asking dumb questions. I also have to say that I do recognize the value statements that group of users has raised. Yes indeed, we use email for all those things (sending messages, including file attachments, documenting (richly) dialogue, and so on. It’s also true that it’s unavoidable in business today. Everyone uses it, and pretty much has to. In fact, email communication is likely the most widely used written medium in business. My point is though, that this comes at a cost.
In my opinion, the utility of email (“Utility” in this case meaning, fit for purpose) is not well suited for business communication processes today. Yes, it’s a mechanism that is a component of many (maybe most) business communications processes, but that doesn’t mean it’s well suited for those purposes. When I say this, most of what I’m thinking about is the temporal immediacy of the conversational dialogue, and the opportunity to facilitate collaboration between business colleagues. Email isn’t a communication technology that is immediate, and the degree of overhead, redundancy, and delay associated with the technology does not bode well for collaborative processes.
For the other knocks against email, it’s difficult to separate the features of the technology itself (it’s architecture, standards, operational aspects) from the way we use email. For example, one can say that email is a very expensive way to send a message or transfer a file. There’s a whole lot of overhead in sending an email message in terms of the protocol and format of the message itself as well as demands on the enterprise infrastructure to process, store, deliver, and archive messages. Some of those costs though, have to do with the way we choose to use and operate email services. When someone copies me on a message in which they’ve said “thank you” to a co-worker for example (one of my email pet peeves), there is lots of data overhead associated with this nine-character message (the message header, the 50k legal disclaimer that gets tacked to the nine-character message, the storage it will occupy forever on several hard disks on our servers, et. al.), not to mention that there’s probably very little business value in me knowing that Scott told Bill “thank you.”
I believe it’s true, as Group 2 points out, that the presence of email in our business communications processes is likely here for a while, and will be transitioned by Web 2.0 (or Web 3.0?) technologies based on the momentum brought by younger users. I think there’s an opportunity too, though, for this transition to be accelerated by increased availability of Web 2.0 technologies in the enterprise. If you’re keeping up with the trade literature, there are hints that this is a movement that is gaining momentum.
As always, I’ll greatly appreciate your views.