Social Networks Spur the Demise of Email in the Workplace

|   Jun 7, 2010

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.

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10 Reasons Email is Dead

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.

Information Overload

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.

Information Fragmentation

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.

Information SPAM

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.

NOTE:
1. Jones, William P. “Keeping Found Things Found” 2008

Comments

  • hmmmm…. I don’t know. I don’t think people are quite ready to bail on email altogether… especially with like functionality of gmail, apps etc. there’s a wide spectrum of folks out there who don’t engage the social media platforms but are crazy on their emails via a blackberry or smart phone… I think this transformation is still a ways off. If that’s the case all of those email companies i.e. ConstantContact, ExactTarget, MailChimp etc… better find something else to do :) !

    Commented on June 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm
  • Having used social media for one of our clients (Open Text), I can say that it offers a much better way to work with a large group of people. It gets you out of the long email strings and with all the content for a project in one place (rather than in email strings) it makes it easy for new people to come up to speed. Email will never die completely, but its importance will definitely decrease over time.

    Commented on June 8, 2010 at 10:54 am
  • I think that the increase of social networking as a means of corporate communication is a massive, massive problem looming. Much larger than clogged email inboxes will cause us. The problem with email overcommunication in business has everything to do with the communicator & corporate policies, and less with the tool itself. Just because we have access to countless social networking platforms now isn’t going to change user behavior or corporate bureaucracy… quite the opposite. In fact, most social networking platforms rely on email or SMS for notifications because since there are so many platforms out there now it simply is not feasible to keep track of what’s happening within each system.

    At the same time, the idea of a central ‘activity stream’ that’s constantly updating everything at once terrifies me somewhat if email is taken out of the equation.

    Catching up on my somewhat modest twitter feed (with it’s character-limited goodness) is a daunting task if I take a 2 week vacation. Thank God that I am not required to keep track of my projects and clients via twitter. I WANT email if something pertaining to my clients is going on and I need a descriptive context & other people cc’ed on the conversation (at the very least I want an email notification).

    Why do I want email? For one, it’s ubiquitous. I know that any internet connected device will at least support the text content of an email. I don’t have to wait until I’m connected to a device that requires a specific type of software to view and respond to request.

    I also don’t want SMS messages for that kind of stuff. I like the fact that I can save SMS messaging for specific types of content (for me, it’s urgent, brief or personal communications… NOT notification noise from some activity stream software).

    Finally, I LIKE that there is a place for someone (anyone) to communicate with me WITHOUT the requirement for me to be connected with them in a closed system. I LIKE the fact that one of my clients can pass along my email address to one of their associates, and that person can see if I want to work with them even though I don’t have to pick up the phone or be connected within the same social network.

    I haven’t tried it, but Socialcast definitely looks interesting and worth trying. However, I feel that the above argument is flawed in a number of different ways.

    If anything, the above infographic proves that we are bombarded more from social networking than from email, and it’s growth is somewhat alarming from the perspective of information overload (which you pointed out we are already experiencing from email alone).

    I don’t know if there is an ideal system, but I would hope for one where email ISN’T dead, but comes through at a greatly reduced frequency & lives in harmony with a social network that would require less of a commitment from it’s users to be connected 100% of the time.

    Commented on June 10, 2010 at 4:46 pm
  • Bring it on!! Email is relatively static in comparison.
    I agree that email is here for now but a hybrid of the 2 would work perfectly. Shifts in managerial attitude is required, policies established then we can look forward to social media taking control of communication. After all, both rely on an address and social media at least requires an invitation.
    Markus56

    Commented on June 11, 2010 at 2:54 am
  • Most phones today come with built in social software. The great thing about major social sites is the fact that plain text can still be sent via messaging. You don’t have to be in ones social network for simple messages. I think if major social sites start to give regular messaging features that email has, for example file sharing, then I can see the death of email.

    Commented on July 3, 2010 at 5:21 pm
  • Mail is dead….. Pagers are dead….. Email is dead…. Voice is dead….. Social Media and texting are alive and Kicking….. The question is what will kill texting and Social Media….
    Whatever it is it will need better security then some social media outlets, and it needs to have the ability to send a private message with a file attached without the world knowing what you just sent. Most likely some college freshmen is working on what will at least kill social media right now. I sure hope it is on a Linux platform. :-)

    Commented on October 19, 2010 at 10:45 am

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What is Socialcast?

Socialcast by VMware (NYSE: VMW) is a social network for business uniting people, information, and applications with its real-time enterprise activity stream engine. Behind the firewall or in the cloud, Socialcast enables instant collaboration in a secure environment. Socialcast is headquartered in San Francisco, California. www.socialcast.com