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We're not ready for the end of email yet

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A man checks his email on a Blackberry.

Thanks to Felix Salmon for pointing me to this Financial Times post by Maija Palmer about the end of email. Yes, that's right — it's yet another argument that email is outdated, badly designed, and the death of all things productive. Here's a taste:

The ability to track email is increasingly becoming a turn-off. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in an age of heightened regulation, bankers are eschewing email in favour of less traceable forms of communications, such as hand-written notes...

However, for many companies, it is simply that email is seen as inefficient. “We believe email is fundamentally unproductive, you need to sift through too many documents and things get lost,” says Leerom Segal, president and chief executive of Klick, a Canadian digital marketing company. “It has no prioritisation, no workflow, and assumes that the most important item is the one at the top. My business partner became so frustrated with how dumb email was, that 14 years ago he began to build better tools for us to manage workflow.”

What follows is an explanation of how Klick's email alternative works, as well as how other companies are using enterprise social media tools — Twitter-like technologies such as Yammer — instead of email. 

Felix chimes in, siding with social media (which he likens to old-school discussion boards) against email and stressing a concept he calls "lurkability":

you can spend as much (or as little) time as you like on these boards, learning about anything you’re interested in, without being formally copied-in on anything. Something which might be a waste of time to you can be useful and valuable to me — and social networks are a great way of giving people access to the stuff they find valuable, without anybody having to second-guess what it is they want to know.

[...]

It’s also much easier to share information you find on a social network: worries that some piece of information might be confidential tend to be much smaller and much less important. As a result, such networks have much less friction than email does.

And anything which reduces the mounds of emails we all have to deal with every day has got to be a good thing. My work email account, in particular, is a nightmare: it’s 95% unsolicited PR pitches and 4% internal emails going out to enormous distribution lists which I have no interest in at all. Which means I have to go to a lot of effort to find the 1% of emails that I actually want to read. There’s got to be a better way.

I agree with him about the confidentiality factor and, like Palmer, I've seen a modest move back to paper in some contexts. However, I very much disagree with the email-is-dead argument. I base this on a couple of things. First, I'm a BlackBerry user who chose that device because of its superb email capabilities and lack of a lot of bells and whistles with everything else, including social networks. 

Second, I've used several email alternatives in a workplace setting, including Yammer and group discussion technology like Campfire. Twitter and other microblogging services, in my experience, are fine for broadcasting yourself, links, fragments of ideas, and so on, but terrible for laying out information in a business context. Campfire is a big improvement on IM'ing and chat, and it's wonderful for managing groups who are all working on basically the same thing during a workday, like a group blog or network of blogs.

But again, it falls apart when you need to engage a colleague, client, or whatever.

For me, an avid if not exactly fanatical user of both consumer and enterprise social media, nothing stacks up to email — and I seriously doubt anything ever will. I have less email of a professional nature to deal with every day than I did when I was working at a for-profit company a year or so back and had different responsibilities.

But I still like that, in a matter of minutes, I can zip through my KPCC/SCPR inbox on my BlackBerry while I'm waiting for my morning coffee to steep.

Admittedly, I'm concerned about Research in Motion's declining fortunes. I'm dependent on the company's commitment to email. If that goers away, either because RIM does or because it gets gobbled up by somebody else (Hello, Amazon phone!), I'll be in trouble.

I appreciate Felix's PR/group lists problem, which I've infrequently dealt with, having used email for the most part in far less enormous operations than Reuters. That said, I would say about 40 percent of my work email and anywhere from 50-90 percent of my other accounts suffer from this issue. There are ways to manage this, however, by setting up various filters, which takes time. It all depends on how invested in email you are.

In my case, I remain very invested. I want to see certain mailing-list publications that I routinely receive, especially the email newsletters I like. I send out my own email digest of my blog, to external and internal audiences. For people who spend all day on email, but who might not be as engaged with social media or their feed readers, this is an excellent way to ensure that I get myself read.

The case against email also reminds that email is essentially an extension of both the business letter and the memo, two paleolithic types of expression that remain extremely useful, in the era of social media, PowerPoint, texting, IMing, and all the other means of disruptive business communication that have come online.

Email isn't really useful as a means of exchanging quick hits of information, although it can serve that purpose. It's more effective as a hybrid of publishing and letter/memo writing. Publishing because you can create a things like newsletters and deliver them in a crisp, concise manner. Letter/memo writing because email enables you to slow down and actually compose — but to deliver the information or directive or analysis in an almost instantaneous manner.

There's another factor to bear in mind, which is the exhausting nature of keeping up with several social media communications streams, while also managing other tasks. Let me imagine that I'm starting a business tomorrow. I would run it with email, meetings, phones, and paper — just like a business would have been run in, say, 1995. We could be building a totally Web 2.0 or 3.0 product, using all the tech at our disposal and capitalizing on social media for off-the-shelf marketing. But as far as running the communications side, we'd go totally old school. 

Email would be at the center of our operations. People might hate it. People might think it's cumbersome and elderly. People might not trust it. But by using it, we'd think more deeply, work more effectively on what matters, and ultimately get more done.

So, long live email!

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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