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Software // Productivity/Collaboration Apps
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11/4/2014
09:06 AM
Shane O'Neill
Shane O'Neill
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You're Sending Too Much Email

Myriad communications tools are available, but most of us keep falling back on email. Here's why that's a mistake.

I love email, but I also hate it.

Despite the alternative communications tools at my disposal that I don't use enough at work, I feel trapped in an email cage. It's a productive cage, but a cage nonetheless.

There's a good argument, outlined in a survey of 250 IT managers and 750 line-of-business employees by managed services provider Softchoice, that non-email communications tools sit idle because they're deployed without knowing what employees need from them.

Perhaps a larger problem is that employees don't know what they need from them either, and the tools go unused while we send group emails to 27 people.

Consider these numbers from the Softchoice survey: Seventy percent of respondents said their company has deployed video conferencing tools, but a measly 5% of employees use them every day. The usage numbers for other communications tools don't fare much better: teleconferencing (69% deployed, 12% use every day), screensharing (60%/8%), social collaboration tools (40%/10%).

[Adding another tool won't cure email overload. Read Google Inbox Won't Fix CYA.]

We're still mostly old-school about how we communicate. At work, we like to speak in person or via email and instant messaging (IM had a 68% deployment rate, and 40% everyday use rate). The desk phone remains a strong form of communication (with an 86% deployed/82% everyday use ratio). This struck me as a surprisingly high use percentage as I've found the phone has become a last resort. But I suppose that depends on your job.

(Source: Softchoice)
(Source: Softchoice)

While we may yearn for face-to-face time, that's harder to pull off with more workers in remote or home offices. This is the new normal of work, but it's left people leaning on that passive-aggressive beast called email. A report from Radicati Group last year on email statistics found that more than 100 billion business e-mails were sent in 2013 every day, and that number is predicted to pass 130 billion by 2017.

Email's lure is understandable. It casts a wide net and can solve problems quickly. It's become as comfortable as an old winter coat. I couldn't do my job without it.

The deployed versus everyday use numbers for email in the Softchoice survey are 97% deployed, 95% everyday use. Yep, email owns us. For all the talk of email's demise brought on by social media -- especially among hip startups and Millennials who see email as a lumbering oaf -- email's very much alive at businesses.

But we need to loosen its grip on our throats.

Who hasn't seen their inbox turn into a fire hose of messages from co-workers and the outside world that leaves you at the mercy of a daily email deluge? It's a distracting game of whack-a-mole that Slows. You. Down.

Obviously, we can't kill email. It will remain a necessary tool for communicating with external sources like clients, customers, and the like. But for internal teams, it's time we give the collaboration tools highlighted in the Softchoice survey more of a chance to lighten the email load.

Video conferencing platforms like Skype and Cisco WebEx offer a humanizing complement to email, but social collaboration tools like Yammer, Chatter, and others can replace email for much of your team's communication and document sharing. And email, for all its comfort, is terrible at building rapport among far-flung colleagues (more group emails? Really??), whereas chatrooms within social collaboration tools excel at it.

The low adoption rates of these tools are a bit baffling given the potential productivity benefits -- only 40% of respondents in the Softchoice study say their companies have deployed social collaboration tools, with 10% of employees using them every day. And you really need to use them every day or they get dusty. But if employees aren't using them, can you blame IT for holding back on deployments?

What's needed is a combination of IT groups deploying the technology and educating employees and team leaders devising concrete plans to use the tools consistently to do better work. But listen to employees. They are overwhelmed by email, but need help in breaking the habit. Most unified communications tools fail, according to the Softchoice study, because employees are left out of the process.

I'll leave you with five tips for IT groups from the Softchoice report on helping employees use (and keep using) unified communications tools:

1. Consult: Survey and create a vision by talking with employees to understand what will make their jobs easier.

2. Communicate: Make it clear to employees what problems the new tool will solve for them.

3. Educate: Thoroughly train employees on how to use the new tool.

4. Measure: Set objective, measurable adoption goals and benchmarks pre-rollout and monitor progress.

5. Repeat: Continually seek employee input, address employee hesitations, and measure user adoption.

Apply now for the 2015 InformationWeek Elite 100, which recognizes the most innovative users of technology to advance a company's business goals. Winners will be recognized at the InformationWeek Conference, April 27-28, 2015, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Application period ends Jan. 9, 2015.

Shane O'Neill is Managing Editor for InformationWeek. Prior to joining InformationWeek, he served in various roles at CIO.com, most notably as assistant managing editor and senior writer covering Microsoft. He has also been an editor and writer at eWeek and TechTarget. ... View Full Bio
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vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
11/6/2014 | 6:03:56 PM
Re: Here are my choices
@moarsauce123 I agree with you that email is the best game in town even though people think it's arcahaic.  It's non-intrusive, permanent (potentially) and can be easily transferred to other things like calendar entries, tasks, meetings, etc.  Win-win-win.  
Legioona
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Legioona,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/6/2014 | 7:57:22 AM
Outlook is the one to blame
The one thing that the enterprise collaboration tools on the market have failed to achieve is the total control of your working day - your messages, calendar and tasks all accessible in a second below different tabs.

This is what Outlook does, it literally tells where you need to be and when, which messages you need to reply next, and acts as a to-do-list as well an information repository.

All of this would be perfect, unless for the underlying flaw: it runs on the email protocol, which was defined in 1982 as a replacement for physical mail. The protocol was never intended for collaborative work, so nothing is stored centrally nor accessible by others. Also, the protocol is push instead of pull, which ensures you cannot influence what you get on your table (the curse of the cc emails).

Facebook killed non-business related email with a more effective communication protocol (think of organizing events prior to FB), we aim to do the same for business related emails with Collaboration Objects.
carmitchel
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carmitchel,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/5/2014 | 9:15:48 PM
Re: If the boss moves off email, the team moves off email

Spot on. Of the thousand of companies that I've had the chance to connect with about workflow and email pain, one thing is certain, if the stakeholders are not willing to adopt and adapt to improve team communications, then teams have failed even before they've begun trying a new solution. I've been in the team collaboration space now for the last 6 years and am currently the product evangelist for Glip.com, so I've had my share of conversations with teams that are left in the dust with no plan from leadership on how to roll out communication software.

It doesn't help that most stakeholders have budgets they need to fight for and implementing new communications software every year is just another line item that was never really intended to improve workflow. We sneak in the back door with Glip since all the productivity tools teams need to communicate and get things done are packaged in an instant messenger. That way we don't have to worry about teams being trained and onboarded. There's hope with options like HipChat, Slack & Glip around - team email and the pain that comes with is on the outs.

moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
11/5/2014 | 7:30:30 AM
Here are my choices
At work I have these choices for communication

- in person

- instant messaging

- instant video conference

- planned video/web conferencing

- phone

- email

- internal wiki

All options other than email and wiki require the other persons to be present. Some of the folks I need to involve in discussions do not come in before 9, some leave by 4, and many take extended or shifting lunch breaks, so between 11:30 and 1:30 any discussions are off the table. On any given day one of the coworkers that should be in a discussion is out or has a special assignment. Also, several folks are working remotely all the time in the armpits of nowhere having spotty connectivity that at times is not fast enough to support video conferencing.

So if we manage to find an hour where people are available we typically spend at least 10 minutes to figure out how to get the web based conferencing system to work (so much for "meetings made easy"). By that time a few discussions already started leaving the remotes at a disadvantage...assuming they will ever come online as there is also often problems with the VoIP phone system in the office that connects through leased lines to a central switchboard at the other end of the country.

Email always works and it is easy to use. You can submit a question to a few people and they respond within the day. Wiki is another option, but our internal wiki is not accessible to everyone in the company and buried behind a login page which makes using it a pain in the rear because often enough the login does not work properly.

People don't use these supposedly awesome collaboration 3.0 tools because they suck. Why do I always have to dial 20 digits and constantly turn on or off things for each meeting? What I want is to configure a meeting session once and then have a shortcut on the desktop that sets up the web session as well as dials the phone automatically and ask only one question: record session?

Another reason why folks keep using email is that except for IM it requires people to talk. We do not have nice offices with doors, just a bunch of cubes. Talking to someone is a major disruption to anyone around who is not involved in the discussion. Yes, we do have conference rooms, but they are often booked or folks just use them at will no matter if someone reserved the room or not.

Email is awesome. It is simple, it is fast, it is text based, it is easy to forward and archive, it is easy to search, it is easy to filter, and it is easy on the network bandwidth (unlike video streams). So until we get a tool that indeed makes meetings easy and we get offices where we can talk to someone at will without disturbing others nothing will change.

 
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 4:19:46 PM
Re: If the boss moves off email, the team moves off email
@jastroff You're right, getting off email is a top down effort -- I probably didn't emphasize that enough in the column. People hate change, so the boss needs to mandate using socbiz tools. Draw a line in the sand. I applaud the tactic by OpenTable of warning salespeople against sending reports via email and to use Chatter instead.

Your story about your manager printing out emails makes me cringe!
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 4:17:45 PM
Re: If the boss moves off email, the team moves off email
Email is pretty much perfect in theory. It just lacks a good standard gating mechanism. I'd be really happy with my inbox if everyone who wanted to contact me had to be whitelisted or pass some anti-spam challenge.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
11/4/2014 | 1:30:31 PM
Re: If the boss moves off email, the team moves off email
You would think with the new Gmail  interface, which is a UI nightmare, that people would be running from email. But there's always Outlook. :-)

You're right. The boss needs to get off of email, at least for certain things. It's a top down change. As you point out, sending sales reports via email is not as effective as sharing them in the right format through collaboration tools.  Yet, at times collaboration tools are harder to use, so we are back to square one.

I've introduced a number of collaboration tools, only to find the boss doesn't want to use it, so the value of putting information there was very low.  That's a key – where the information resides gives the channel or application the value. We can all agree there is lots of information of different types, and so we select our communication channel to accommodate.

On the lighter side, I once had a manager who had their admin print out all their email messages, then they would write comments/actions on them, and put them in the staff member's inbox. 
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 1:05:58 PM
Re: If the boss moves off email, the team moves off email
Oh the irony. In an effort to wean off email we create more emails about the activities of non-email communication tools! But I do think when a social tool like Yammer works well it becomes part of peoples' work day enough that email alerts are superfluous.

However email is still the place we check most often so sending alerts there for any kind of activity makes sense. I guess it's up to the user to figure out which email alerts are redundant and decrease their frequency or shut em off.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 11:45:06 AM
Re: If the boss moves off email, the team moves off email
Then there are the collaboration systems that increase your email input. I can think of three collaboration or project management systems I use, meant to replace email for work requests or announcements, that generate automated alerts of status changes or new posts in my email system. Part of the answer is managing those alerts -- I've dialed one back through settings so it's much better. But some of those email alerts are essential, so I don't have to monitor more than one channel. So I'm not ready to sever those from my email, which remains my central communication console.    
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 11:33:47 AM
Re: If the boss moves off email, the team moves off email
Amen Dave. The OpenTable example is a good argument for reducing email among work teams. I agree that a social collaboration stream at work is yet another comunication channel to manage, and we all have enough to manage. But it's worth it if it curbs the email avalanche, with an upside of improved teamwork/productivity. But like most things it takes a boss to say, "No more emailing of reports. We're using this social tool now. Here's the plan."
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