As we come back from vacation to an inbox filled with hundreds of emails, most of which we don't need to read, we might let out an anguished bellow and ask: when will we fix email?
Everyone knows how awful it is: you get flooded, it's pretend work, it's inefficient, and so on. And everyone is looking for a way to fix email. And every once in a while, a new app comes along that promises to fix email. And every time, it fails. The reason why is that it can't.
Sorry. It bothers me as much as it does you, but it's just the truth. You're not going to fix email. Here's why.
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The simplest reason why email can't be replaced is its 100% saturation. In enterprises today, everyone -- and that means everyone -- has email.
In business strategy, we often hear about network effects, whereby the value of a network is the square of the members of a network. This is thought to be a great competitive advantage, because network effects mean your business grows very fast as the network grows, and then is very hard to displace. eBay, for example, has a network effect: Because all the sellers are there, that's where the buyers go; because that's where the buyers are, that's where the sellers go. That makes eBay's business very robust.
But actually, very few networks achieve saturation, meaning that (for practical purposes) everyone is on the network. And there is a very big difference between using a communication network with almost everyone, and using one where there is everyone. Email is the latter. Alternatives to email, no matter how popular, are the former.
If displacing an ordinary network is hard, displacing a network with saturation is impossible. The barriers are too high. Everyone is already checking email, so everyone sends email. Because everyone sends email, everybody has to check email. It will never end.
Social networks don't take care of all use cases and don't have saturation
One big promise for "fixing email" is enterprise social networks -- Jive, Yammer, and many others. To some extent, they have helped things. But anyone in a company that uses those social networks knows that they haven't gotten rid of email. They can actually improve on some common use cases for email, like task management or quick-fire collaborative conversations. But they don't take care of all, or even most, use cases. Your boss wants to send information about a major new corporate reorganization or strategy to all 150 people in his organization at once? That's an email. A vendor wants to touch base in a semi-formal way without interrupting you via phone or email? That's an email.
Even in a team as small and tech-savvy as CITEWorld, we have basically abandoned our Yammer and gone back to email. One of the biggest problems? The only people who were consistently checking Yammer were doing so because they were getting email alerts about it...which begs the question, why not just use email?
What's more, an open secret about corporate social networks in most big companies is that most people who actually use them are junior people -- the senior people use email. If you're lucky, on their Blackberry. If you're not lucky, because their secretary prints them out. But you need to reach the senior people. So you use email. And because they do, it trickles down.
There's nothing bad about social networks and other collaboration software -- again, for key tasks they are much better than email, and have tremendous benefits. Three cheers for good enterprise collaboration software. But it will never replace email.
The phone is worse
There is another communication method that's just as saturated as email, and that's the phone.
But I hope we can all agree that this is worse in every dimension. It is synchronous instead of asynchronous. It is interruptive. A lot of people find phone interactions unpleasant. And finally -- and this is crucial in some lines of work, but matters to office politics everywhere -- it doesn't leave a written trail.
Email is a deliverable
Finally, one criticism sometimes leveled against email is that it's make-believe work that harms productivity: Time spent on email is time wasted.
But that's just not true. In a big company, emails are deliverables. Sending important emails to your team, to your boss, to your customers, that is work. Reading important emails is work. In many teams, the most important debate happens over email, which is a lot more efficient than many alternatives, especially meetings.
And it's a deliverable -- it's something you're expected to do, and on the basis of which you will be evaluated. That's the essence of work.
While it's taken for granted that much email time is wasted, a good chunk actually is productive.
My point here is not to "defend" email. I hate the annoying parts of email just as much as you do (if not more--non-journalists have no idea how much email we get). But email is also an essential and quite often useful aspect of modern work. By all means, embrace new collaboration software. But don't kid yourself that it's going to get rid of email.