How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Email

I was talking a little while back with an IT manager responsible for the technology package used by the road warriors at a large global consulting company. She told me about all the different digital meeting rooms (DMRs) she and her team had tried to deploy, and about how none of them had ever caught on.

As at most big consultancies, analysts, managers, and partners in this company work together in relatively stable teams for the life of a project. Team members communicate extensively and intensively with each other, but long ago stopped using voice mail to do so when they weren’t in the same room. Email, of course, has replaced voice mail, and has been for some time the company’s communication backbone. Email is used for collaboration, coordination, updates, conversations, private chats, and almost every other form of interaction at a distance.

This was considered an issue for a couple reasons. Heavy email volumes increase storage requirements and make backup and synchronization a pain. More fundamentally, many at the company believe that email is a lousy tool for generating group-level knowledge and sharing it. I got the sense that the IT manager and many of her colleagues had come to the conclusion that, as Bill French put it, “email is where knowledge goes to die.”

This is a problem at a consultancy, where the only valuable assets are knowledge assets (assuming that the shiny downtown offices are leased).  Email is also a pretty lousy technology for keeping track of any particular extended collaboration, the elements of which are invariably chopped up and distributed across many messages, replies, ccs and bccs, and so on.

Because of all of this, the company had at several points introduced technologies that were supposed to do better a job than email of supporting a group’s interactions and harvesting its fruits. These tools had included dedicated wikis, virtual team rooms, and related offerings from Groove, Lotus, Microsoft, and others.

The IT manager estimated that she and her team had rolled out at least ten different DMRs in recent years. And she was clear that all of them had failed. None were widely or deeply used, and none had made any serious dent in the company’s steady torrent of email.

I don’t think her experience is atypical, and I don’t think it should be ignored. In fact, I think it’s time for Enterprise 2.0 enthusiasts to give up their frontal assault on email —  their war on words (it’s your father’s technology, it’s a dinosaur, it’s where knowledge goes to die) and their attempts to build and/or deploy replacement technologies.

I say this for two main reasons:

Email has some positive attributes. As I wrote a while back, “Email is freeform, multimedia (especially with attachments), WYSIWYG, easy to learn and use, platform independent, social, and friendly to  mouse-clickers and keyboard-shortcutters alike.” It can be used effectively by everyone at the consultancy, from a junior associate with a laptop in a hotel to Blackberry-addicted partner hopping among airports. It works well enough on both big and small screens. I admire Luis Suarez for his experiment in living his professional life without email, but I don’t want to replicate it.

Email is the incumbent technology. It’s beneficiary of the 9X effect, and so hard to uproot. It’s the collaboration technology of choice for lots of knowledge workers, particularly older ones. And these older folk are generally the people in charge. They’re the ones responsible for defining, executing, and delivering the work of the organization. This means that they get to call this shots, and if they want to communicate with colleagues and receive in-process and finished work product via email, they will.

When this is the case, the value of using other group-level collaboration technologies goes way down. A group of collaborators and I once started to write a paper using a wiki to hold drafts, to-do lists, supporting documents, etc. Things went swimmingly until one of the senior folk in the group started asking questions and sending thoughts via email. Because she was a valuable contributor we didn’t want to ignore her, and because she was senior we couldn’t dictate what tools she had to use to collaborate. The rest of us soon saw that it was at least twice as much work to maintain two parallel work streams, and eventually walked away from the wiki.

I appreciate that Millennials have different technology preferences and often prefer to use emergent social software platforms (ESSPs) instead of email and other channel technologies. But I also appreciate that almost without exception they enter the workforce in junior roles, and so are in no position to dictate terms about digital tools or anything else. Yes, there is a war for talent, including young talent. But there’s also a severe recession on, and plenty of talented people looking for work. With US unemployment around 10% and talk of a jobless recovery in the air, I wonder how many members of Generation Y will actually walk away from a paid gig just because the communication tools in use don’t suit them.

So does acceptance of email mean abandonment of Enterprise 2.0?  Of course not. Email might have a long tenure ahead as the communication technology of choice for strongly-tied colleagues, as well as for sporadic communications (especially private ones) among weakly- or non-tied people. But that’s not any kind of death blow for Enterprise 2.0.

ESSPs do things that email just can’t. Blogs and microblogs (like Twitter and Yammer) let us narrate our work and broadcast our expertise. Microblogs and discussion forums let us do the opposite, broadcasting our questions and requests and giving everyone, close colleagues and strangers alike, the chance to help us out. Social networking software lets us stay current with lots of people with little effort. And prediction markets harness collective intelligence, providing clear and accurate answers to difficult questions about the future.

All of these activities have proved valuable, both on the public Internet and on company’s private online properties.  They’re all examples of ESSPs’ ability to knit people together in novel and productive ways, to harness, collect, and share knowledge (without formally trying to ‘manage’ it like we used to) and to increase the degree of self-organization in an organization. And email supports none of them. It’s good for a lot of things, but it doesn’t deliver the benefits discussed here (which are covered in more detail in my book on E2.0).

I find that facilitating small group collaboration among strongly-tied people is a fairly uninteresting use case for ESSPs, because it’s already covered (imperfectly? haltingly? adequately?) by email. Many other activities aren’t. And because we don’t have any track record of supporting these activities with technology I think we tend to ignore or at least devalue them a bit.

In a later post I’ll talk more about why doing so is a really bad move. I want to end this one by asking if I’m making an important mistake by, as this post’s title suggests, stopping worrying and learning to love (or at least declare a truce with) email. Is this a copout? Does email need to go in order for Enterprise 2.0 to take off?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know what you think.

p.s. I’ve just started using Google Wave, a collaboration support technology from the folk who brought us the PageRank algorithm, Gmail, and Google Scholar (OK, that last one is a parochial choice, but it’s so much better than previous tools for sifting through academic literature). I like what I’ve seen so far, but need colleagues to experiment with. My gmail identity is amcafee – reach out and let’s start messing with this thing.

Wave or something like it might be the better mousetrap we’ve been waiting on for supporting unstructured team work, but that’s very different than saying it’s the one-stop shop for Enterprise 2.0.

p.p.s. I’ve changed unessential details about some of the people and companies described above in order to preserve privacy and confidentiality.