Email's slow death march

It's easy to condemn email as a productivity killer because we're using it for too many things. But before companies can ditch email completely, they'll need to match up the tasks managed by email with the raft of emerging alternatives.

Email has moved from being the internet’s first killer app to being a productivity killer. You can make news by claiming to hate it, ban it or kill it. But the problem with email is not the technology – we’re simply using it to do too many things.

Banning the inbox

French technology firm Atos recently announced an 18-month plan to ban email. CEO Thierry Breton claims only 10 per cent of daily emails are useful and 18 per cent are spam.

Atos will move the internal communications of its 74,000 employees from email to alternatives ranging from real-time messaging to a Facebook-style news feed. A spokesperson for the firm said internal mail has already been reduced by 20 per cent.

The problem of overloaded in boxes is certainly acute; it stems from two central issues:

  1. There is a disjunct between employees' “need to know” information and the technical ease of replicating and forwarding that information.
  2. There is a tension between colleagues “being on the same page” and technical systems that are appropriate for enabling this.

These problems have led to email becoming the one-stop-shop for both tasks, while acting as long-term storage for all potentially relevant information. In boxes can fill up with 20 emails just from arranging one group meeting; or slightly different versions of files being sent and re-sent; or CC lists and mailing list subscriptions.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the problem of commercial and personal spam.

So has Atos hit on a viable solution?

Bit literacy

Tech writer Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload, would say no.

Hurst points out that the Atos announcement follows an increasing trend of radically condemning email that has sprung up over the last few years.

In 2008, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington declared email was in crisis. Hurst cuttingly responded to this with the argument that a geek who can’t use email hasn’t thought through how it fits into the daily workflow.

Earlier this year, UNC Chapel Hill Professor Paul Jones “quit” email, instead offering students the opportunity to contact him via 12 alternative services. Hurst criticised Jones for replacing one service with a random collection of alternatives with different capabilities.

Why does Hurst love email so much? He proposes the technology itself is not the problem. Rather, he claims, individuals and institutions lack “bit literacy”. Bit literacy extends older concepts of “computer literacy” to include understandings of internet sharing technologies, of which workflows are a part.

Hurst’s strategy for inbox management proposes that the link between email and work should be on work as action not work as sorting information. As he says: “separate your to-dos from the rest of your emails, so that you can work from a to-do list, rather than an in-box.” This strategy has the advantage of being very simple and still allowing people to use email as their single point of contact.

Fitting technology to the task

The social aspect of email is still only part of the problem. The fast pace of technology development also means technologies can be better fitted to work tasks to which email is ill-suited.

Across all technologies, one fundamental issue that needs to be better addressed is improved search capability. The inability to search policies, documents, forms, calendars and so on is a primary reason why CC lists and other forms of replicated sending clutter up email in-boxes. This process, known as federated searching, is difficult, of course, but the benefits would be far-reaching.

After better search facilities, cloud-based document creation and storage is the next most likely technology that could help us limit email volume.

Cloud-based document creation allows users to work on one document that tracks revisions rather than using individual copies of documents with differences that need to be constantly reconciled by emailing around the latest draft.

Instant messaging and micro-blogging platforms such as Yammer could also reduce internal email. Their quasi-synchronous nature promotes decision making in the moment rather than delay. Character limits (if they exist) reduce messages to the bare bones and promote telephone or face-to-face interaction for more detailed issues.

The ability to filter and block certain forms of messages or people also reduces the amount of material that needs to be skimmed for relevance.

These technologies, and those yet to be imagined, hold the promise of better suiting technology to work (and social) needs. That being said, adoption is tricky to predict. The Australian-developed Google Wave held the promise of integrated, searchable, collaboration platform that merged instant messaging, status, email, document and image sharing (among other things).

But its cluttered interface led to poor take-up that resulted in its demise last year. Google Wave was designed to be the integrated single point of content that email could not deliver, but that “all-in-one” aspect may well have been part of the problem.

Discrete applications that do their task well, coupled with improved search functions, could be a better long-term solution. And that may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

The rise of open document formats such as XML, common standards for meta-data and common logins may well lead to a better future. That might sound complex, but think about what’s in your inbox now … isn’t it time to try something new?

Sean Rintel is an Associate Lecturer at University of QueenslandThis article first appeared in The Conversation on December 8. Republished with permission. 

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