Friday, January 13, 2012

Will Email Ever Die (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1 of this column we began to discuss whether the use of social networks for collaboration, cooperation and communication would reduce or eliminate the use of email. Using email can be inefficient and waste limited human and computer resources. The younger members of the work force, sometimes called digital natives, have more experience with social networks like Facebook and Google Plus and prefer this style of interaction. We imagine as they begin to dominate the work place, email might slowly disappear.

In Part 1 we took a look at the example of a small team collaborating first by sending email to each other, and compared it to an approach where they post into shared space. We could easily see how the second approach was so much better. All of the content was stored in one place, accessible by everyone on the team. This eliminated the problem of multiple versions and the need for reconciliation.

We didn't even explore more advanced forms of sharing actual documents using cloud based services like Google Docs. In that case, multiple parties granted view or edit rights, can all be working on the very same, single instance of a spreadsheet, diagram, presentation or memo. A complete audit trail is maintained showing every change and who made it.

But I also stated at the outset that I did not think email was going away any time soon. So why do I think this is so? Let me give you four reasons.

First, there are times when the message is a one to one, direct message and it may demand immediate response. For example, how would you accomplish a meeting invitation or conduct a poll? How would you deliver an invoice? How would you send an alert to the system administrator for excessive failed login attempts. Posting these and waiting for the recipient to visit would not be optimal.

Next, email often serves as a "back channel," an alternate means of sidebar discussions held privately and quickly among the participants outside of the shared space. Although you could use a phone call or text, email is convenient when you want to copy/paste from the shared space or create some new content and get feedback before proposing it to the whole group.

Third, there is an interoperability issue. Email has evolved into a standard that allows cross platform (and therefore intercompany) communication. Assuming one company is using a system like Lotus Notes, the only practical way to engage people in another company is to send them an email.  Even if the outsiders were convinced to learn and participate using this system, they would still have to be 'tickled' when new content has been added or their input is needed.

Which brings us to the fourth and final point. Every social network includes a mechanism to alert participants when they should visit. These networks are passive, meaning you have to decide to go an look at them. Those messages arriving in our inbox usually contain links that tell us exactly where to go. Otherwise we would spend a lot of time trying to figure out if anyone has added, changed or removed some content. Run down the list of all the major systems and you will see they each allow you to select the level of notification you want often dependent on the activity or trigger. Especially in our fast paced and highly mobile computing environment, you need a mechanism to point you to content that demands your attention.

By the way content management systems and other shared systems employ exactly the same logic. Whether its generated from a person or an application an email to you is still the most effective means of getting your immediate attention and engagement when needed.

Captain Joe

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