Friday, 2 February 2007

Email: a victim of its own success

I said I'd lay the boot into email, but actually I'm still rather fond of it. It's rather like an old friend - in my case the relationship goes back two decades - who doesn't really have as much as common with you as he used to, but you still like to spend time with him. But then some friends force us to spend a little more time with them than we really want, don't they? And email is a bit like that.

Long gone are the days when an email system existed but was little-used. Long gone also is the time when it was used my most, or all, employees but selectively. Other methods of communication were used in preference to it where they seemed more suitable. (Or is it my memory that is selective here?) Nowadays email is used for pretty-much every kind of unstructured communication.

Infrastructure departments will complain about the bandwidth and storage used. It's increased exponentially, and not just because of spam. It's because email gets used a LOT, and not just for text but for the transmision of attachments - often addressed to multiple recipients, and of course saved by the sender, too. But bandwidth and storage aren't the most important issues. Far more important are information overload, on the one hand; and information retrieval, on the other. (There's also a pretty hefty records management issue, too, which whilst closely allied to information retrieval, is a little off topic, at least for now.)

In my view, the significant problems of email now are:

  • because it's used for everything from arranging lunch to setting out an important business proposal, the important things get lost in the overall volume of material
  • it's hard to find these important things later, because most email software doesn't allow easy categorisation or free text search and most users don't find it easy to get organised using the few facilities that there are
  • we're all so hooked on it that we can't see the enormous inefficiencies involved in trying to collaborate on documents by emailing them around to each other as attachments
  • important information is trapped in email 'silos' which cannot be seen by those who weren't copied in.

I don't believe email is no longer useful - far from it - but for many purposes there are better tools. But - as Andrew McAfee says in his post "The 9X email problem",

"Email is virtually everyone's current endowment of collaboration software. Gourville's research suggests that the average person will underweight the prospective benefits of a replacement technology for it by about a factor of three, and overweight by the same factor everything they're being asked to give up by not using email. This is the 9X problem developers of new collaboration technologies will have to overcome. "

So that suggests there'll be considerable inertia or passive resistance involved in trying to get people to use Enterprise 2.0 technologies in preference to email. And email has to be one of the prime targets.

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