And The Long Sought Replacement For Email Is . . .

Email sucks, right? It undermines workplace communication and knowledge sharing with its 1-to-1, letter-writing paradigm. Its lame attempt to be open and communal via carbon copies (yes, that’s “cc”) leads only to splintered conversations and further confusion. And then there are attachments, which are modeled on the stuff that used to accompany your letter. 

(“Dear Sirs: Enclosed please find the 1500 page unsolicited manuscript of my first novel, entitled  ‘Email: Threat or Menace? – A Comedy.’ I have also enclosed a testimonial from my 8th-grade creative writing teacher, Mrs. Cartwright, and a home movie of my visit to Walden Pond. I trust you have a Super-8 movie projector handy?”)

 Attachments mock security policies and the effort to establish a single version of the truth, and they surrender control over the structure and flow of a multiple-part presentation to the random whims of the order in which the receiver opens (or, doesn’t open) the multiple attachments.

Enterprise 2.0 enthusiasts (count me in) have argued for several years that Email’s manifest deficiencies could and would be overcome with open, social, and dynamic 2.0-based communication and collaboration tools. However, there’s also long been the recognition that Email – or rather, Email users – would not go down without a fight.

I recently revisited a 2006 blog post from enterprise 2.0 guru Andrew McAfee that neatly laid out why objectively superior workplace technologies struggle to displace Email. In short, people are typically so change-averse that they overvalue what they have by 3X and undervalue proposed substitutes by 3X – hence, as McAfee has it, “The 9X Email Problem.” A successful replacement for Email would have to be not just better, not just 5X better, but 10X better than Email in order to overcome this resistance.

McAfee said that enterprise 2.0 technologists could fight the 9X problem in two ways: “Try to increase the perceived benefits of their technologies (in other words, what the user feels she’s getting), or lower their perceived costs and drawbacks (what the user feels she’ll be giving up).” 

Recent releases and announcements from vendors suggest they’re taking a third approach: Avoid the 9X problem by retaining Email as the addictive workplace app, but avoid the deficiencies of Email by making it smarter, social, dynamic, and an interactive part of business processes instead of just a means of exchanging messages about processes. Just about everywhere you look today, vendors like Google, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, and Novell are announcing product releases, extensions, betas, or visions that take your tired old Email interface and pump it up with various combinations of chat, presence, voice and video, threads, profiles, and in-place application functionality.

So it looks like the long sought replacement for Email is . . . better Email.

My colleague Ted Schadler will explore in detail why and how Email will likely remain at the core of the future workplace at Forrester’s IT Forum in Las Vegas this week (“Reinventing Email For The 21st Century”).  On a related note, I’ll lead a session on “Turning Your Intranet Into An Efficient Information Workplace.” Please come by to discuss.

But in the meantime, or if you can’t make it to Vegas, what do you think about the role of Email in the emerging information workplace?


I'd tell you what I think, but

Tim, I'd tell you what I think, but I'm too busy deleting all the spam emails I received last night.


The trouble with email...

The trouble with email... is that it companies makes the same mistake as with other components of modern IT. Organisations whinging about lost productivity because of email should ask themselves important questions about process and governance.

If you want your people focused, deliver their comms as a workflow process, then you absolutely know that they're only dealing with core processes and information. If, as an individual, you can't discipline yourself to allocate email accounts to specific roles and functions, don't wine when you spend your 'working' time wading through spam.

Once upon a time documents and records would be ruled by a Records Manager who would ensure that EVERYTHING was checked out and checked back in again. Then came teechnology and, all of a sudden, it wasn't anyone's responsibility, other than some techie who looked after your database. These are old-fashioned disciplines forgotten. Time to re-awaken them...

Business Class email

You are right, email isn't going away anytime soon. There is some research showing that Enterprise 2.0 usage actually increases email, rather than decrease its usage.
I think the solutions needed for business email and personal email are different. For business, the next "version" of email will need to support a process orientation -to help manage the long-running, human-centric, unpredictable processes that knowledge workers do everyday. In other words what is needed is business class email - I have blogged about it here:

Jacob Ukelson - CTO ActionBase

Thanks for the comments. I

Thanks for the comments. I agree with Jacob that the process-orientation of business email makes it significantly (although not essentially) different than personal email. (Quick thought: Perhaps this accounts for some of the criticism of Google Wave, which looks really cool as a way of interacting with others, but might leave people scratching their heads when they try to support ongoing and intensive business processes? For example, the use case from the initial Wave demo that sticks in my mind was workers sharing and commenting on . . . photos from a group outing.)
I also agree with David no "next gen" email solution is going to be successful unless it is framed by (and, finally, in the service of) a deep and well thought out governance structure.

Google Wave

I agree that Google Wave suffers from a split personality - it could bring a paradigm shift to business process management, but Google has positioned it as a consumer tool. If Google decides to make Wave a business tool, they would need focus on some enterprise features now missing:

- Full integration with email. The functionality needs to be more tightly integrated with regular email.

- An explicit process orientation. Enterprise collaboration usually takes place in support of a work process, and there needs to be a way to provide the process context for the collaboration (e.g. an ongoing audit, a response to an RFP, a fraud investigation). There also needs to be standard, structured ways for participants to add standard process status information (e.g. complete, declined) to the email.

- Links to other systems. This is related to the process orientation. There needs to be a way to link with other enterprise systems (document management systems, CRM systems etc) related to the process. This also requires that there be a way to add structured data to the collaboration (for linkage to those tools).

- Governance and security. In an enterprise setting, not everyone is equal. You need a robust governance system that understands who each user is and how much access they have, and ties into the existing access control systems.

- Tracking and monitoring. This is both to allow the enterprise to learn from the collaborations and the process, and to enable an audit trail of the work done.
Robust Reporting. Enterprises need reports (and links to the BI system) Enterprises need the ability to generate personal reports, departmental reports and executive reports from the tracking and monitoring information, which requires structured access to collaboration and process information.

Jacob Ukelson - CTO ActionBase

IBM Lotus Notes/Domino Pumped up since 2008

Since mid-2008, IBM Lotus Notes/Domino has provided chat, presence, threads, profiles, and in-place application functionality; that IBM Lotus Symphony (text, spreadsheet & presentation editors) is also integrated; and plug-ins for Gist, Tungle, Tripit, and other vendors exist providing "in-place application functionality" in ways that goes beyond basic email; we look forward to other vendors eventually releasing their current betas or vision announcements to deliver similar items.