Don’t kill email. Tame it.

In this response to our recent post by Angela Ashenden, which warned that only 1 in 3 work emails is essential for work, Richard Hughes, author of the...

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In this response to a recent post by Angela Ashenden, which warned that only 1 in 3 work emails is essential for work, Richard Hughes, author of the excellent Business Communication Revolution, urges caution.

 Email – the business communication tool we love to hate.

Yes, there are people who just hate email and have done something about it by moving to an enterprise social network or similar. And yes, there are some people who, despite all email’s well-known failings, still love it. But the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle – our business lives are dependent on email as our primary communication tool, but it is a constant source of frustration to us. We know there’s a better way of communicating – social networking in the consumer world has demonstrated that to us – but we just don’t know how to get our companies to make the towards this 21st Century communication nirvana.

It’s not as if there is any shortage of new communication tools to move to. Quite the reverse, and the vast array of options available can be overwhelming. Barely a week goes by without another VC-funded start-up claiming to have reinvented email for the mobile age.  But while we may, as consumers, be happy to flit from one shiny new app the next, moving an entire company’s communications on such a whim, unsurprisingly, never happens.

Indeed, it is hard to overestimate just how resistant change many companies, and their individual employees, are when it comes to kicking their email habit. For the last three or four years, the introduction of enterprise social networks (ESNs) were seen as the solution to corporate communication woes, but their promise remains unfulfilled. For many organisations, ESNs have proved to be too big a step to take all in one go. The open, transparent way of working that an ESN represents is a destination, rather than the first step of the journey.

More recently, an avalanche of WhatsApp look-a-likes has promised employees a simple way of communicating efficiently from mobile devices. But these often represent many IT departments’ worst nightmare, where corporate control and discoverability of data is even worse than in the world of email. Different is a not always better.

So it seems that this “let’s-kill-email” plan is going to require a bit more thought…. That’s why BroadVision is pleased to be running The Future Of Business Communication series with Our Social Times, which is kicking off with our Moving Beyond Email webinar on 15th Oct.

Maybe we don’t want to kill email at all. Instead, what we really want is to go back to using email for what it’s good at (e.g. quick person-to-person ephemeral messaging , simple notifications)  and stop using it for all the things it’s really poor at (e.g. big group discussions, carrying company knowledge, transporting large files around).  When we consider what’s beyond email, we shouldn’t assume that email plays no part in the new communication landscape. Yes, it will play a different part, and almost certainly a reduced part, but it will almost certainly still be there.

Perhaps the biggest omission from most of these beyond-email debates is the recognition that we don’t all use email in the same way, and we don’t all hate the same bits of it. I know that in my company, further up the management chain the biggest frustration is the classic overflowing-inbox volume-of-email issue. But personally, that doesn’t bother me much. 20+ years of using email have trained to be to be really good at filtering an inbox very quickly. No, my biggest frustration is people who don’t reply to messages I’ve sent.  It is email’s lack of accountability that I hate. Take a cross-section of any company and you’ll find a similar disparity in opinion about what’s wrong with email and what the company should do about it.

So, any beyond-email plan first needs to understand how people in the company are really using communication tools today, their frustrations, and their hopes for future innovation. Only then can we formulate a comprehensive, credible strategy for updating our business communication habits.

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