We Need To Talk About Email

About nine months ago, I did a short bit of consulting work around information management that made me revisit my thoughts on email. Previous to this, I had firmly believed that email could be replaced with other collaboration tools. This was an organisation with a smallish number of people that had chronic email behavioural problems. As part of this work, I decided to see which organisations had gone the whole hog and got rid of email from their organisations completely. And the answer was: pretty much no one*.

Which chimed with another element of my experience over the last few years. In working with groups around their collaboration tool strategy**, we often went through a whole bunch of options (a wiki, no, Facebook, no, Ning, no, LinkedIn, no Twitter, no…) but ended up with an email list. Email is simple, reliable and good enough. It is the AK47 of collaboration technologies (compared to the finicky M16 of most other collaboration tools).

Email is here to stay (even if it may be replaced or augmented by other tools in certain contexts). So I went off read all the academic research on email that I could find. And then wrote the first of a series of articles on email use and its future. At the time, I reckoned such content would be considered hopelessly passé (allegedly, we are living in a post-peak email world). So I wasn’t that bothered when the publication dates for the articles got pushed back.

So imagine my mixture of self-satisfaction and annoyance at the subsequent public debate about Atos CEO Thierry Breton banning email in his organisation. It seems that email is still a live topic . BTW My armchair quarterback response to the 4 contributions in the NYT “Room for Debate“:

  • I think that Luis Suarez has the most nuanced points to make – given that he has spent the last 3 years walking the walk, not just talking the talk;
  • Peggy Duncan has some nice tips but blows it with the last sentence*** (yes, meetings are bad but that might mean better meetings rather than just fewer meetings – just like with email);
  • William Powers also seems reasonable position but again blows it with the last sentence*** – most of people the I work with are not in the same building as I am. F2F is lovely but often simply not practical.
  • Nicholas Carr has an interesting point but it’s not really his. Linking to other people’s stuff is good, Nick***.

Will Thierry Breton will succeed in his mission? My suspicion is that executive pressure will lead to greater use of non-email-based collaboration tools. However people will simply find email-like ways to use these tools – and projects that involve Atos clients or partners as well as internal staff will continue to use email. M. Breton may get less than he bargained for.

The question about email is whether its more like the phone or the fax. The phone has its limitations but it offers some unique advantages so it will be around in one form or another for the foreseeable future. I made several phone calls today (including some non-prank ones). Whereas the functions of the fax machine can be wholly subsumed by more advanced technologies (cheap scanners and, gulp, email). I cannot remember the last time I sent a fax – but I would have had considerably more hair and less flab. My take is that email falls into the “phone” category – its unique advantages mean that it’ll be around for  a while.

Now that doesn’t mean we can’t use email more productively (or just plain less) and use our new-fangle collaboration tools more. It just means that I think the “Death to Email” cries that occasionally emanate from the Social Business world are way premature.

*Cue lots of emails from organisations that have done so.
**Sadly for my bank balance, these groups had no money.
***This may be down to subbing.

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