Email: a social business enabler

Updated on January 11, 2016

Dilbert

In the mobile internet age, checking email is simultaneously a nervous tic and, for many workers, a tether to the office, says The Atlantic in a very readable feature about email that discusses a most interesting question: Why does one of the world’s most reviled technologies keep winning?

According to The Atlantic, this might be one reason:

A person’s email inbox is where forgotten passwords are revived; where mass-mailings are collected; and where pumpkin-pie recipes, toddler photos, and absurd one-liners are shared. The inbox, then, is a place of convergence: for junk, for work, for advertising, and still sometimes for informal, intimate correspondence. Email works just the way it’s supposed to, and better than it used to, but people seem to hate it more than ever.

Email, then, is a nexus, a convergence, a digital method of receiving the essentials along with the trivia of your personal and professional online lives that has all but eclipsed analogue communication for many people, eg, paper you (used to) get physically delivered to you.

To some people, email is seen as a necessary evil, part of the means to manage elements of your online life in a way that is easy, as to-the-moment as you want it to be, and as safe and secure as you know how to make it, both in the tech behind the tools themselves and how that tech prevents you from doing stupid things with safety and security.

In short, email’s got a lot going for it. So why, more often than not, do we love to hate it? After all, we’re way beyond Nigerian email scams that, less than  a decade ago, people cited as a primary reason to hate email (although we still have the hidden tracking pixel).

The Atlantic has some ideas on why when it recounts a concise history of email’s big growth in the 1990s, the explosive growth of internet connectivity in the early part of this century, and where we’re at today.

If there’s any clue from the behavior of teenagers as to the direction of a given technology, email appears, well, doomed. Teens barely use it (or Facebook for that matter), opting instead for text messaging and chatting on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Three-quarters of teens regularly text one another, according to a 2012 Pew study, while just 6 percent of them exchange emails routinely.

People seem to hate email for the same reasons they once loved it. Email’s underlying triumph, the quality that made it revolutionary, was that you could instantly deliver a written message to someone even if they weren’t there to receive it. But leaving messages for people to pick up later means contributing to swelling inboxes that require time to maintain.

And then we arrive at the crux of today’s email hate as The Atlantic points out:

In 2016, instead of being the subject of romantic comedies and love songs, email is at the center of conversations about digital overload and work-life imbalances. The words “drowning,” “avalanche,” and “tyranny” are used. People resent their inboxes because they are not in control of them. Email takes a psychological toll.

There’s wisdom in that perspective on loss of control, especially if you cast an eye over troubling stories recently on new business scams where email plays a central role.

I know quite a few people who would say “ditch it, then!” and think they can manage their digital lives entirely via social networks and messenger apps on their phones, without email as we know it at all.

A New Convergence

That’s actually not an impossible scenario. I look at my own behaviour and see a shift that happened over the past few years where many day-to-day exchanges with others today – some significant, many trivial or forgettable – happen via text message, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and/or Facebook that otherwise would have been by email.

I’d say that accounts for about 80 percent of all my digital communication today. Another 5 percent would be by phone – mobile not a landline or even Skype because mobile is always right there wherever I am and its easy. Plus mobile phone plans in the UK typically come with unlimited phone calls: no need to think twice about making a call. Above all, though, it’s convenient.

The other 15 percent is unquestionably email even if the tool I use and where I use it may have changed over time – no longer just Outlook on a desktop computer but many email-enabled apps and services on mobile devices as well; and a majority being communication and exchanges with others inside other businesses (large ones typically) where email cultures are still pretty strong and pervasive.

I just joined IBM, a company where you’d perhaps expect email culture to be welded to the walls. That’s not really what I see, though: more a hybrid organization in transition and social invention (as well as client-appealing reinvention) where people use myriad tools to connect and engage including most of the ones I mentioned earlier as well as their own proprietary ones.

What I see different today is how all of those tools mentioned above, including email, are evolving into a collaborative, cohesive, whole. A new convergence, if you will.

IBM is also the company my friend Luis Suarez worked for until 2014 where he famously lived a work life without email from 2008.

Is Luis a pointer to a work-email-free future in large enterprises? Or, more likely, a changed work email future, an evolved work email future? Some companies have grasped the idea and embraced big change: Atos, for instance. The French-based IT services enterprise launched the Atos Zero email program in 2011 as a key part of a wider change initiative:

Its aim is to transform towards a social, collaborative enterprise where we share knowledge and find experts easily in order to respond to clients’ needs quickly and efficiently, delivering tangible business results. […] It focuses on reducing the overall messaging load. So far it has saved 25% of work time previously spent on email and reduced disruptions and email overload by 60% — down from an average of 100 internal emails per employee per week to 40. Furthermore a certification process has resulted in 220 business processes being redesigned to become “email free.”

Is this where the future for email lies? As one component in a collaborate, social set of processes that show measurable benefits such as Atos say they have seen as they drive necessary enabling change through their organization?

As Gartner sees it:

The novelty, scope and disruption of this initiative provoked a significant shift in employee interactions, moving out of email and into social collaboration. The unique experiences and achievements of Atos’ change program to improve employee engagement provide a wealth of valuable information on the practices, investments and results of social collaboration.

In light of this social, collaborative, evolution where email becomes a constituent element of a social business process that drives organizational change, maybe the final word here best comes from Ray Tomlinson, who sent the first email in 1971 and invented the ‘@’ sign for email addressing, and who is quoted in The Atlantic’s feature:

“It may be called something else, it may be embedded within some other app. We may even abandon the protocols. But I don’t think it’s going away,” he said. “Email is always going to have a place.”

And it may offer a whole new meaning to the friendly greeting of yore: “You’ve got mail!

(Dilbert cartoon at top by Scott Adams via Dilbert.com)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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