Social Networks Spur the Demise of Email in the Workplace
The demise of this once-critical communication platform has been a long time in the making. The reply-all threads and the hundreds of unread messages clogging up our screens have been taunting us for years, toying with our patience and sanity. We’ve consistently loathed this antiquated form of communication that has controlled our workflow, our access to other employees, the time we leave the office, and how we share information to get work done. But now, in 2010, we’re officially declaring email to be DOA.
Email no longer rules the communication dictatorship in the office. In the past several years, new forms of communication have begun to appear, pushing email off its throne. Gen Y helped usher in this shift, using new tools like Facebook and Twitter to reduce their dependency on email to communicate. The general corporate population has simultaneously lost its patience with email’s “in your face” nature; since email addresses tend to be public knowledge in a company, internal email systems have essentially given permission for any employee to contact another and demand a response. Our patience is worn thin, and the alternatives are now clear. We’ve begun a revolution that will put email in its place: in the ground.
Now, it would be naïve to say that email is going to quietly accept its death sentence and leave us to bask in our newly found productivity. What kind of villain would go without a fight? Email may be dead, but it’s not going to disappear. Email is like a zombie or a vampire – it’s going to hover and haunt us when we least expect it. The living dead of communication forms, email will cling ruthlessly to its final breaths as Activity Streams methodically take their place as the dominant form of corporate communication.
There are a variety of key components to the death of email and rise of Activity Streams. Today, we’ll examine some of the key workplace communication issues that are driving this fundamental shift.
Email has created an overload of unnecessary communication. On average, corporate email users sent and received an estimated 160 emails per day at the end of 20091. With this vast number of messages demanding our attention, email clients haven’t adapted to the increase in traffic, leaving inboxes full of messages that are ignored due to a lack of workflow management capabilities. This information overload has become a productivity drain, triggering nothing more than a conditioned Pavlovian response to read and write when the proverbial bell tells us to do so.
Email by nature must have defined recipients, making messages a unilateral communication tool that doesn’t leverage the collective intelligence of an organization. It’s a very one-to-one system, making who you know more critical than the information itself. The result is that information silos exist across organizations, making knowledge unattainable to others who could benefit from shared data. Further, all email is identically weighted, providing no hierarchy of importance on a per-message basis. Users must rely on a subject line or little red flag to signal urgency or importance, and even these signals can be abused. How does one know which emails to read, and what information must be shared right away? Oftentimes critical messages are lost amongst heavy email traffic, eradicating the urgency of a message altogether.
For most of the past decade, email has typically been a free form of communication. But like anything free, it has been misused and taken advantage of. For example, the real epidemic of SPAM affects all email users, and continues to require more and more resources to combat it. It’s estimated that 68.6% of arriving email is SPAM1. Filters have helped weed through SPAM, but often run the risk of relegating legitimate email to the SPAM folder. Even worse, some SPAM attempts to cause harm to your system or obtain private information. SPAM has eroded our trust in email, causing us to expect that a large quantity of our incoming messages will be illegitimate.
“Occupational SPAM” is a real problem in most organizations as well. This type of SPAM comes from messages that well-meaning or unknowing senders think are important, but actually cause chaos and information overload for recipients. Corporate email inboxes are littered with “CC” and “Reply All” messages sent to dozens and even hundreds of colleagues, even though they have no relevance to most recipients and are viewed as a nuisance. Habitual abusers inside a company will eventually be overlooked altogether as recipients start to ignore messages from the worst offenders. This becomes a problem when the offender actually has something important to say, but is ignored.
New Communication Growth
Despite these shortcomings, the email user base continues to grow. At the same time, new types of communication are growing at a faster rate. According to Nielson Co., in August of 2009, 276.9 million people across the U.S., several European countries, Australia and Brazil used email, up 21% from 229.2 million in August 2008. In the same time period, users of social networks and other community sites grew by 31% to 301.5 million people. These networks have provided a new form of communication that is being adopted at a much faster rate than email. These new networks have provided society a new way to share and consume information, delivering on expectations about when and how data should be delivered. Have you noticed how we tend to want everything faster? This is a product of our real-time culture, ushered in by social networks.
In a time when society has become impatient with waiting for anything, why are we still waiting on email? Social networking sites have given us the ability to communicate on our time, and more often than not, it’s real-time. Email simply can’t accommodate this new need for right-now information. Social networks have eliminated the need to write an email to friends and family, and have empowered us to consume the information if they choose, when they choose. In the same vein, social networks can help organizations solve many of email’s shortcomings.
Activity Streams: The Email Killer
A communication shift is happening as users look to blow the top off information silos and let knowledge flow freely without the constraints, frustrations and loss in productivity email brings. The solution to the information overload, fragmentation and spam epidemic is Activity Streams. The real email killer, Activity Streams are the future of communication, uniting people, data, and applications in a real-time central, accessible, and virtual interface. Think of a social network where every user, system, and business process could exchange up-to-the-minute information about their activities and outcomes. Now, instead of pockets of knowledge, employees will have one central nervous system that unifies every piece of an organization’s information.
Activity Streams will fundamentally change how organizations function, unlocking the vast amount of information generated by everyday operations and making it instantly available across previously defined boundaries. Activity Streams humanize every process inside an organization, adding a social layer to data and opening up real-time collaboration. This new found freedom of better information flow will be the nail in the coffin for email. Email will continue to haunt us as we experience the communication revolution happening with Activity Streams. At the same time, we’ll begin to thrive as we witness and experience the renaissance of social enterprise communication, moving closer each day to email becoming a burden of the past.
1. Jones, William P. “Keeping Found Things Found” 2008