Has Email Peaked? - InformationWeek

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10/31/2014
12:06 PM
Phil Simon
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Has Email Peaked?

This excerpt from Phil Simon's upcoming book Message Not Received discusses how email has improved but is still riddled with problems.

The following is excerpted from Message Not Received: How New Technologies and Simpler Language Can Fix Your Business Communications (Wiley, March, 2015). In his seventh book, author Phil Simon examines how we communicate, use, and often misuse language and technology at work.

For a long time now, email has served as the default mode of business communication, and a fair amount of research confirms as much. For instance, in 2013, the Radicati Group released its Email Statistics Report, 2013–2017. Among the study's most interesting findings:

  • Email remains the go-to form of business communication. In 2013, business email accounts totaled 929 million. The number of mailboxes is expected to grow annually at a rate of 5% over the next four years, reaching over 1.1 billion by the end of 2017.
  • More than 100 billion business emails were sent in 2013 every day. That number is expected to exceed 130 billion by 2017.

To be sure, these are unwieldy numbers, but what do they mean to you?

In July 2012, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) released a report titled "The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies." MGI found that knowledge workers on average now spend fully 28% of their work time managing email. The math here is scary: People who work 50 hours per week spend 14 hours stuck in their inboxes.

MNR_COVER

Put in remarkable historical context, a generation ago, professionals spent no time sending and reading emails. Today, those tasks constitute nearly one-third of their workday. The McKinsey report recommends that workers use more collaborative tools in lieu of email. In effect, we can "buy back" 7% to 9% of our workweeks.

All of this is to say that email has come a long way since its advent in the 1960s as a tool for government types, techies, and wonks. For nearly a quarter-century, it remained very much a niche form of communication. Beginning in the mid- to late 1990s, email began its march into -- and eventual dominance of -- the corporate world. It quickly supplanted the intraoffice memo. Score one for the environment.

Still, its early adoption was anything but smooth. Many VPs employed secretaries to type for them; they did not want to be self-sufficient. Back then, storage costs were considerable. To combat this, IT departments typically restricted the size of employee inboxes to now laughable levels. A message sent with a 3-megabyte attachment would typically bounce back.

Most corporations, nonprofits, and small businesses quickly realized that email was becoming an indispensable internal and external communications tool. Business was willing to pay for fast, reliable, secure email, and software vendors responded. As a result, the reliability of email has significantly improved from its early days. Sure, with rare exception, messages sometimes inexplicably vanish, perhaps because of a glitch in the matrix. Spam filters sometimes incorrectly flag messages before they reach their intended recipients. Most organizations have relaxed their message size limits, if not altogether eliminated them. Data storage has never been less expensive.

Yes, spam is still a problem, Bill Gates's proclamations about its impending demise notwithstanding. (The ex-CEO famously predicted in 2004 that spam as we know it would be cured by 2006.) Sometimes email accounts are hacked. Everyone (including yours truly) has mistakenly replied to everyone copied on an email instead of just to the sender -- and eaten a fair amount of crow for doing so. Beyond that, the novelty of sending around time-sucking chain emails has thankfully waned. We now have social networks and blogs to share jokes and stories that once routinely contaminated our inboxes.

The overall email experience might be qualitatively better than a decade ago. To be sure, though, it continues to suffer from profound problems. The next section examines them.

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Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of six management books, including the The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions. He consults organizations on matters ... View Full Bio
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PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
11/3/2014 | 10:23:17 PM
Re: More Email, More Results?
I think the challenge right now is how to manage email.  I don't think email will go away any time soon.  It is time email to get a facelift.  What type, will greatly depend on each organization.  I have problems in managing the number of email I get on a daily basis. A way to better organize and navigate the number of email i get will really improve my productivity
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
11/2/2014 | 9:52:43 PM
Re: More Email, More Results?
I think more precisely the number of important emails you processed in a working day means the work you have done. Furthermore, organizing the email effectively is also critical - many emails we recevied are not relevant to us and you just need to read the headline.
BruceHarpham
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BruceHarpham,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/2/2014 | 1:49:40 PM
More Email, More Results?
The survey data about time spent on email leaves me wondering: does more email mean more work is done? In many cases, I think the answer is yes. (That said, managing email does carry some overhead in terms of keeping it all organized - greater corporate adoption of Google Email woud help there).
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
11/1/2014 | 4:40:21 PM
Re: Has Email Peaked
I do not think email is as effective as other messaging platforms any more. Sure, email is ubiquitous and is not platform-specific. That's a benefit. However, I think a lot of people are looking at more dynamic systems for messaging these days. 

Slack is an example of this, and they have raised a lot of money in order to try to disrupt email – should be interesting to watch. 
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
11/1/2014 | 1:14:30 PM
Asynchronous
The best thing about email is that it is asynchronous by design. You send an email and will not get an instant response. Why is this a benefit? It allows the respondent to take time to think. That luxury does not exists with instant messaging or 1:1 conversations.

Another great thing about email is that it can be stored as flat text and thus is incredibly well suited to be searched. IM and IRC can be logged as well, so those would be alternatives as well. Especially IRC works great for collaboration because it is easy to have people join and leave channels as needed while still allowing anyone who was not present to review the discussion that took place at a later point. That works wonders in distributed teams where you cannot grab all team members for a quick meeting.

The claims that email is unweildy and broken are just ignorant to the true value of email. None of the suggested replacements properly address the two needs mentioned above.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
10/31/2014 | 5:34:20 PM
Re: Email is the unkillable undead creature of the collaboration universe
Most people agree that email is an overused lumbering oaf. But it works and it's comfortable. I don't think it can be replaced, but it can be augmented by collaboration tools like Yammer or Chatter, especially for internal teams. Email should be something you just use to communicate with people outside your company. That's a good start anyway.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
10/31/2014 | 3:59:45 PM
Email is the unkillable undead creature of the collaboration universe
There are all sorts of reasons why business ought to move beyond email, but will it ever happen? I'm not so sure.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2014 | 3:09:46 PM
overused
Email is often overused. And like a cell phone with 79 messages after you turn it on in the morning, you don't really want to go through everything to get to the important stuff. While the sheer volume of work emails is less than personal emails, maybe it's time we stop thinking about shooting an email and instead walking over to their cubicle or picking up the phone, or even an instant message when we just want something quick. Email should be for things that you need a record of, like memos and reports of the past. There is a place for email but 20%+ of the workday, yikes!
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2014 | 2:06:33 PM
Hard to replace
It's hard to replace email. It's too good at separating out the different conversations you are having, while combining them when you need them into something longer. 

IMs, or texts just assume it's one long stream of conciousness which is irritating for all sorts of reasons. 
mejiac
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mejiac,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2014 | 12:55:32 PM
Re: Has Email Peaked
@tekedge,

Agreed... and for many companies is the defacto way of communicating, along with providing an environment to step away from printing hard copies.

I honestly don't think there's a replacement for email. Text Messaging and Chat Boards to offer a different ways to collaborate, but email is still a bit more formal (reason why it's steps on lot on the legal department).

In fact, many online collaboratin tools sync up with email clients, so that you can post and reply from there (versus having to navigate to the site).

And I'm not sure what can replace an email when sending an attached document to review.
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