Will 2012 be the end of email?

end of email

2012 begins with a slew of predictions that this year will see the back of email. Back in November, multibillionaire foetus Mark Zuckerberg declared “email is dead”.

It must be true, I read it on Twitter. However, Zuckerberg is hardly an impartial observer; he’s got his Facebook Messenger to flog (a system which, ironically, has a user experience akin to using Yahoo webmail in the late 90s).

ATOS boss Thierry Breton is taking the whole business more seriously; he’s making it his personal mission to end the use of internal email by 2014, arguing that 85% of his staff’s time spent on email is unproductive.

Breton noted that his new graduate hires didn’t use email; they’d grown up on social tools such as Facebook. It was only on starting work, he claims, that this cohort were introduced to mail – and found it wanting.

Research by ComScore reckons younger people don’t use email, eschewing it in favour of IM and social networks which provide “instant gratification”. This is precisely the kind of meaningless statistic regularly used to prop up claims that email is on the way out (usually peddled by people with a messaging system of their own to promote). Until I joined the workforce I’d never participated in a meeting, made a round of tea, or heard the word Action used as a verb. Yet all of these things are still going strong in the most digital of workplaces. That people don’t adopt common workplace practices until they join the workforce should hardly come as a surprise.

Let’s get this straight right now: Facebook messenger, Twitter and Yammer aren’t about to see off a communication medium which has been going strong since 1972. Not now, and probably not for a long time.

Claims that one type of new technology will swiftly usurp established practice are nothing new; Plato claimed that the spread of writing would destroy humans’ ability to remember.

The ComScore research found visits to mail sites such as Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo fell by 6% in the past year. Crucially, however, it doesn’t find that that volume of email received and sent has actually fallen. And as more and more if us are using smartphone and tablet clients to manage our personal emails, it kind of follows that this should impact on the number of visits to webmail sites.

In the workplace, things are different. People are attached to their Outlook. This has long been a source of bafflement to intranet managers and others working in enterprise tech. Outlook, as we all know, is rubbish.

Well, it is; it’s particularly rubbish at the things it wasn’t supposed to be used for, like collaboration and archiving. But this is like moaning that a hammer is crap at cutting a piece of wood in two.

What Outlook is mostly quite good for is emailing. As a program for reading and writing emails, facilitating communication between two or more people, it’s really not bad at all. It integrates with Office. It has folders and a calendar, and if you’re very clever you can add voting buttons, which at least half of the recipients will miss.

And the fact is, people like email. They know what to do with it. They can attach stuff to it. Crucially, at some future date they can retrieve their email from the bowels of their Personal Folders in order to cover their own back. Granted, it does mean that disk space is optimally used, or that versions aren’t ordered, or that they’ll definitely be able to find what they’re looking for, but for most this is a small price to pay.

The times, however, are a-changin’. Attached though users are to Outlook, the fact is that IT teams are not. If 2012 is anything, it looks set to be the year of the cloud. Usability and functionality of cloud-based office apps has now improved to the point where they present a genuine alternative, while at the same time budgets are being squeezed. For many IT departments, switching to cloud based email is fast becoming a no-brainer.

It’s this, together with the increasing use of smartphones as the primary means of reading emails, which may finally break the office’s addiction to Outlook.

And that, my intranet-loving friends, is an opportunity. If people are – for other reasons – going to change their workplace tech habits, then for the first time ever they might be genuinely interested in your collaboration platforms and document management solutions.

If your organisation is aiming to move to cloud-based mail this year, then now is the time to get planning.  While we know the benefits of a social, collaborative intranet, in most organisations they haven’t yet taken off; 72% of employees use internal social functionality less than once a month.

This isn’t because they don’t know how. The same group of users will happily update Facebook daily. No: it’s because they haven’t figured out the point yet, and find your collaboration platform fiddly.

So what can you do about this?

First, make your internal social network better. Find out what people want and need and give it to them. What do they want to communicate about, and with who? What features do they need? File sharing, task management? These are all things people do (badly) in Outlook. For your internal social network to take off, it needs to be genuinely useful and help people to do their jobs better.

User experience is a vital component of this. Facebook has the traction it does because it’s intuitive and easy to use. Internal networks need to watch and learn. People won’t put up with a clunky interface simply because they’re being paid to be there.

Many will claim to have already cracked step 1. Good. Then why aren’t people using it? Perhaps they don’t know it’s there, or don’t understand the benefits of using it.

Employees need to understand how internal social can improve their productivity, or they won’t see the point in using it. Make sure the benefits of using the system are clearly spelled out. As well as marketing the product, you need to cultivate the network.  Like any social network, internal ones need to reach a tipping point – a critical mass of users and a decent range of content – before they really become interesting and useful.

Here, 2012 provides another opportunity; with many being asked to work from home during the Olympics to reduce demand on the transport network, people are actively looking for solutions to support home and flexible working.  These newly homeworking employees could provide a valuable case study, demonstrating how intranet 2.0 can improve communication and collaboration, leading to more innovation, better knowledge-sharing and ultimately increased revenue.

Start talking to these people now and ensure they have the right tools in place by the time the Games come around. If the tools work for them, they’ll have an incentive to keep on using them after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Email isn’t dying. If anything, it’s suffering from growing pains. But with the changes to workplace technology in the pipeline for 2012, this is the time to develop and promote the alternatives in order to make your organisation work more effectively. Your workforce needs you.

3 thoughts on “Will 2012 be the end of email?

  1. Pingback: Intranet Lounge

  2. My first day back at work has remidned me of this blog post. As an Atos employee (views are mine, not of the company, etc), I can see where our big boss is coming from: we really are drowning in email. The tools are there to cut it down dramatically, but I think banning it altogether is going too far.

    We have an intranet. Corporate news items should go on there.
    We have SharePoint. Department wide announcements of changes and new procedures that we’ll need to refer back to belong on there.
    We’ve got Office Communicator. You can use that to get hold of someone when it’s not quite urgent enough to demand a phone call.

    But in our department, we work shifts. Every so often I’ll be working on something on a nightshift, and there isn’t really any other way to get more information from someone other than by dropping them an email – then at least you’ll have a reply by the next evening. OCS isn’t much cop at 3am. Likewise, there are some colleagues I never see unless one or other of us is on overtime. If they switched off our internal email, I’d have to go old-school and leave a note in their pidgeon-hole.

    So he’s barking up the right tree, but perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with you, for the most part. Email is out of control in a lot of workplaces, and it’s good that Atos is acknowledging this and trying to introduce alternatives. But as I said in my post, people are very attached to their email clients, due to habit and work culture. Improving usability of alternatives, as well as the shift to more flexible ways of working, might mean we see the email addiction break – but it’s really unlikely to see it off for good. It’s just too ingrained in the way we work.

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