Friday, January 6, 2012

Will Email Ever Die (Part 1)

Got into an interesting debate the other day over the question of whether social networks like Facebook or Google Plus would eventually replace email. We've all read or heard about one company that turns off email at the end of the business day and another banning the use of internal email altogether. Companies are encouraging the use of other forms of electronic exchange, phone or face to face meetings. Outside of work, more and more people are texting and posting instead of using email to communicate with family and friends.

In my view, email still servers a useful purpose and will be with us for a long, long time. However, this is a complicated topic and so I have broken the discussion into two parts. Today in Part 1 we will look at more efficient ways of using technology to collaborate. Next week in Part 2 we will come back to why email will stay around.

I have long been an advocate of moving the one to many communication model into another format, more suited to the process of asynchronous discussion and collaboration. Several times throughout my career I evangelized the concept of discussion space also known as forums, chat space, bulletin boards and a variety of other labels. All of the popular social networks and many commercial software systems offer this capability.

Imagine you want to solicit some ideas from five people in your company. The standard approach is to send an email containing your request to all five. Ideally, each of them will reply to you and you assimilate those responses into one final answer. But  what often happens is one of the five invariably responds only to you perhaps with a comment asking for clarification or adding a new dimension to the question. You are now forced to send a follow-up note to the others to bring them up to date.

In the meanwhile, they have sent some notes around to each other and people outside this circle to engage more people in the discussion. They too are collecting and assimilating multiple responses into the one they plan to send back to you.

Look at the myriad of problems with this approach. From a resource perspective we are generating an awful lot of extra emails increasing network traffic, using  limited bandwidth and consuming storage. Emails are flying everywhere delivering the same content over and over again. This is particularly acute when the messages contain attachments such as spreadsheets, pictures or diagrams.

Multiple instances of these messages are stored on each person's computer and on the mail system server, and ultimately in back up copies and archives.

In addition to wasting all these computing resources, we have people constantly comparing the last message received to all previous messages, trying to identify the new information and reconcile it with prior versions of the content.

Now, compare this with a model in which you post your initial message to one place much like an electronic bulletin board where the others can see it and post their response. The request for clarification is immediately visible to the other participants. They, in turn, can respond to it with additional comments which will also be visible to all. As each person responds, the thread grows and all the information is in one place at one time. Grant access to others and more people can read through the discussion and add their comments at the end.

This is the model most familiar to social network butterflies. Post a photo or status to Facebook and all your friends respond in the thread below. Post a link or a blog entry to Google Plus and the comments flow in orderly fashion below.

Since this approach is clearly more efficient and familiar to the younger generation entering the work force, should we assume that email will disappear from the office? Will email go the way of the acoustic coupler? Do you even know what an acoustic coupler is?

More on this next week in part 2.

Captain Joe

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