The future of email is the activity stream

Email dominates workplace communications. It has become entrenched into the way people work with one another, so much so that now we wonder how we ever worked without it. But email has been shown to be outdated, inefficient, and counter-productive to the way companies run – and most of us don’t realise it. It takes bold actions to bring this reality to mainstream attention, such as those of Learning as Leadership whose CEO trialled a week-long ban on email within the company. Interestingly, the company’s employees discovered that they worked and communicated more productively without the constant battle with email information overload. Other businesses such as French company Atos have made headlines by banning email altogether.

So what’s the problem with email?

Email was never designed for what we use it for today. When email first emerged, its original purpose was simply as a way to copy files over to another user’s file directory. But over the decades email has become integral to digital communications and the workplace has evolved around this relatively fixed, inflexible system.

Today, companies rely so heavily on email that a reported 28% of a professional’s working week is spent reading and answering email. The fact that more than a quarter of workers’ time is spent managing email rather than working may seem surprising in itself, but it is even more startling when we consider that the majority of this time is spent administering irrelevant emails. In explaining their reasons for banishing email, Atos cited the staggering statistic that only 10 percent of the emails their employees received each day were useful to them.

The reason for this is that we have no control over what email we receive. Anyone who has your email address can send you whatever they like whenever they like. The only level of control you have over what emails you receive is the ability to unsubscribe from newsletters – too bad you can’t unsubscribe from your colleagues!

Receiving excessive emails distracts you from your work and it takes up valuable time reading and replying, filing or deleting each one. Related emails are not held together intuitively and unless you meticulously organise your inbox it can be difficult to find specific emails you need or to gather all of the correspondence with one particular individual or on a particular topic.

Emails are designed to be private and because of this they create knowledge silos, where people who may need to or like to know information cannot be party to the conversation unless they are actively added to the email chain. Even then, it is easy to forget to Reply All and people get left out. Likewise, people who do not need to be involved in email chains are repeatedly CC’ed, clogging their inboxes with irrelevant information.

With this in mind, it is understandable that companies like Atos and Learning as Leadership would take the seemingly radical step of banning internal email. But rather than ditching digital communications altogether, there is an alternative to email which is making waves in the enterprise: the activity stream.

What is an activity stream?

An activity stream is an automatically generated list of recent events about a person, group or topic, enabling a user to view activity as it happens and engage with it in various ways, such as comments, likes, shares and replies.

Activity streams rose to popularity on consumer social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. On these networks, users generally follow people they are interested in (friends and family or influential people such as sports stars or celebrities) and updates from these individuals will appear in the user’s activity stream.

Similarly, activity streams in enterprise social collaboration platforms display the real-time activity of colleagues who are active within a particular collaboration site. This blog post goes into more detail on exactly how social tools can help to manage the flow of information within the enterprise.

How can activity streams reduce email overload?

Activity streams enable us to control the flow of information we receive. Unlike email, you can filter your activity stream to show you only certain types of updates (such as microblog or blog posts, files or events), updates from the site you’re most interested in (sites can be set up for projects, teams or departments for instance), and by specific people that you’re following.

You are also in control of how you interact with this information. Unlike email, where you are compelled to reply to each message, you don’t need to acknowledge every post in the activity feed – only those that are of interest to you. You can interact in multiple ways too, from quickly ‘liking’ a post, to sharing, replying or commenting on it.

Relevant and timely information is posted chronologically so you can grasp what is going on within the site (or within the company) at a glance. You can quickly gain a peripheral view of what is relevant and important at the current time and are able to instantly immerse yourself in active discussions. Activity streams support real conversations rather than long back-and-forth email chains.

Information is effortlessly shared among colleagues, and everyone who is interested is able to gain access (unlike siloed emails). Knowledge sharing is facilitated for everyone within the organisation and anyone who wants to share information can. It is easy to find answers to questions too. Rather than emailing a question to someone, pose it in a microblog post and anyone who knows the answer can chip in. This information can be captured and easily found again using well-chosen hashtags. Find out more about microblogging in this blog post.

What all of these things have in common is the fact that the activity stream does not interrupt your work. It is intended to give you a quick overall glance at what is happening within a select group of relevant individuals, which you can choose to interact with if you need to. Activity streams do not demand your time and attention. It is inevitable that you will miss things on the activity stream, but it doesn’t matter. If something is important, it will rise to the top of the stream as other colleagues interact with it so that you can too, in the same way that face-to-face conversations do.

As more companies adopt enterprise social collaboration platforms and replace email with activity streams, soon information overload, constant distractions and knowledge silos will be left in the past. Instead of saying “how did we ever work without email?” companies will wonder “how did we ever get any work done with email?”

To find out more about activity streams and enterprise social collaboration, please contact us.

Download: The complete guide to microblogging for the enterprise

Susanna James

Susanna specialises in social business and content marketing. Her expertise lies in helping companies streamline the way they work and improving how they collaborate through enterprise technologies and social tools.

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