What to do with a problem like email?

From Evernote:

What to do with a problem like email?

The decry of the weaknesses of email as a multi-participant collaboration tool in recent years needs no introduction, However, James Dellow’s post bought to together some interesting thoughts and reflections on the subject.


Email remains a key “comfort app” (a la Hinchcliffe ), and it’s function as a channel to send and receive communication remains unhindered despite a new generation of social media channels and platforms arising maturing to become part of the mainstream. Not all of them offering a super rich user experience, as some of these are based on much more restrictive formats e.g. SMS
In spite of this there is good evidence that email use and the number of subscribers to an email service will not shrink but in fact continue to grow.
A May 2009 report by technology market research firm The Radicati Group estimates that there are 1.4 billion email users in 2009, expected to rise to 1.9 billion by 2013. The same source suggests that some 247 billion emails are sent each day in 2009.
So though other tools are available it’s clear that email is set to remain as a primary channel to for individuals to access person to person as well as person to service communication.  I think there are some key shifts that continue to consolidate email’s position as a critical communication tool.
Learning to do more with less : If there one thing social media services (like Twitter ) and the proliferation of mobile media devices has taught us, it’s how to get more functionality or richness into or from a more restrictive format or form factor. Compare the 1st generation twitter clients with those currently in vogue, especially those that bring fantastic user experiences into mobile devices.
Recognizing that people start and spend their day in or near email : The societal and cultural work habit of ” living in the in-box ” is almost ingrained to employees – it’s not learnt on the job anymore but comes through the nature and nurture of family life and upbringing in a modern digitalised society.  The “in-box” is the access point into an individual’s concentration, consciousness and is by enlarge their source of information flow. Excluding a service from utilising email as means of communication would be an extremely risking thing to do.
Therefore services are adapting to make email a richer and fuller experience.  Desktop email clients have been steadily evolving to include an ever greater set of features, mainly about bringing in more services into that single client user experience.  We now have presence awareness, rich telephony integration capabilities, all sorts of plugin or widget extensions to add additional services to complement the email experience.
Services are becoming more capable of dealing with email (I’ll explore this in a follow-up post – here).  Considering that the SMTP protocol has evolved (though perhaps not extensively) in a manner entirely transparent to the user, that itself is a great benefit to end users.  So users only need to change a little in their usage habits, but the application of email and the services they can interact with from a single source is actually greater than many think.  A great example of this is of course Posterous , where publishing of content into Posterous or other services is all arranged around the use of email.


What the advocates and evangelists (such as @elsua) of more social/alternative communication models/tools, offer through well known arguments around the benefits for moving towards a more social and collaborative orientated knowledge management attitude and work habits. Is the need to look at the options to change mechanics and approach people take in communicating with each other.
Keeping an over-reliant focus on email as the only option is a view of yesteryear, and that combined with the pressures to keep in touch in the increasingly mobile business and community environments in which we operate leads to a stress reaction to blame the tool set (email) rather to thinking intelligently about the wide choices available.
Business leaders (but everyone can play their part) need to help by assisting people make steps into a world with more diverse communication options than just email.
They can do 3 things that can make a really difference.
1) – Provide a wider portfolio of communication and collaboration tools – no excuse now as every vendor is in on the act with a collaboration suite of some kind : (See commentary on the thought leadership from Cisco)
2) – Set an example by using those tools themselves, whether it internal or external – they can do something visual and reassuring to their audience and employee base that these tools are valid and should be used.  (e.g. a corporate leader’s blog)
3) – Most importantly Trust and Respect People, that as smart and socially adept individuals they can with (a little prompting where appropriate) figure out how and where to use a variety of tools or methods to meet their communication needs and goals.

Note: I’m sure much of this has been said before (and will be again), but I’m using this post as an attempt to summarize the discussion so far, and as useful reference for myself.

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