The changing role of email in a social business

In the late 70s and early 80s businesses were on the edge of a massive transformation. The birth of the internet and email changed the way organisations went about their business dramatically, providing a sense of connectivity and the broader ability to engage with a client base.

However in the last 30 years email has not advanced as a concept, but what has changed significantly, is our usage of it. Email became the hub of our working day, with quotes like “take me away from my inbox and you’ll make me less efficient” being banded around, and more third parties building integrations into a tool it was never designed for (I heard the CIO of a magic circle law firm say they were having a nightmare upgrading to Outlook 2010 because they had 23 Outlook add-ins). Ultimately the end result is that email has become a behemoth.

Let’s go back to the beginning. What is email? Electronic mail is a method of exchanging digital messages from an author to one or more recipients across the internet or a computer network. An internet email message consists of three components, the message envelope, the message header, and the message body. The message header contains control information, including, minimally, an originator’s email address and one or more recipient addresses.

What happened and why has email thrived? Simply put, email quickly became the life blood of an organisation. Email is very simple to use and understand and it was always designed to aid two main internal challenges most organisations face:

  • The distributed workforce: Organisations tend to rely on communications between people who are not physically in the same building, area or even country. Travelling to, setting up and attending an in-person meeting, telephone call, or conference call can be inconvenient, time-consuming, and costly. Email provides a way to exchange information between two or more people.
  • Email allows asynchrony within organisations: With real time communication such as meetings or phone calls, participants have to work on the same schedule, and each participant must spend the same amount of time in the meeting or call. Email allows for each participant of a conversation to control their schedule independently, without being tied to the same amount of time, as opposed to them all being in the same room or on the same call.

Whilst it resolved those challenges successfully, in being too successful it generated a whole raft of other issues:

  • Loss of context: On many occasions the context is lost forever; there is no way to get it back. Information in context (as in a newspaper) is much easier and faster to understand than unedited and sometimes unrelated fragments of information. Communicating in context can only be achieved when both parties have a full understanding of the context and issue in question.
  • Information overload: Email is a push technology – the sender controls who receives the information. Convenient availability of mailing lists and use of “copy all” can lead to people receiving unwanted or irrelevant information of no use to them. This always results in people ignoring email and therefore missing key communications.
  • Inconsistency: Email can duplicate information. This can be a problem when a large team is working on documents and information while not in constant contact with the other members of their team.
  • Liability: Statements made in an email can be deemed legally binding and be used against a party in a court of law.

There is a saying that a lawyer lives in the email client. Still today traditional legal technology vendors align their product strategy with the email client. The evidence is in the number of add-ins most law firms have. What does this ultimately mean? A slow email system. Email clients are doing more than they were ever designed to do and the technology has not scaled with the expectation.

Luis Suarez (IBM) changed the way he worked in 2008/9 after starting his ‘World without Email‘ project. I could probably write a (very lengthy) post on Luis and his findings by itself but I won’t, I just want to summarise them. In short:

  • He is now no longer a slave to his inbox.
  • He still checks email regularly but it only takes his minutes not hours.
  • He still uses it for sensitive 1-2-1 conversations but the majority of his responses are via social media, whether that be to a closed audience to IBM via IBM connections or publicly via twitter or Google+.

The most valid point here being that if more content were open, we’d be communicating less.

So what is the future for email? Email will always exist, that’s a given, but we just might find a better medium to replace 90% of its traffic. That medium has to provide a sense of relief from the daily grind, that resolves existing challenges and ultimately enables the evolution of platforms that remove the barriers to excellence. We’re not that far off…honest!

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Ben Wightwick

Product Director at HighQ
Ben is responsible for HighQ Publisher product and the associated services delivered to its clients. Ben also provides consulting and focuses on the application of modern social and collaborative concepts usually found in the consumer world and applying them to today's typical business challenges to enhance productivity, improve both internal and external communication and knowledge management. He is more of a people person than a technologist and is driven by great user experience. He enjoys working closely with clients and colleagues to ensure the successful delivery of solutions which help clients derive the most value from their investment in HighQ software. He has over 10 years legal, social and content publishing technology experience.

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