Email — Game on and the case for People Centric Software

James Dellow responded to posts by Luis Suarez and Andrew McAfee about the value of email in an Enterprise 2.0 world. I thought I’d add my own views as someone with current Enterprise experience in what E2.0 looks like inside a large (160,000) person organisation.

While I’d personally love to see a world with less e-mail, I think it’s with us for some time to come and there is a good consensus amongst these writers on some key facts about e-mail that the “anti” e-mail camp often overlook.

  • There is a significant network effect — e-mail is the dominant and in many cases, the only form of communication. I’d add to this that e-mail is one of the few technologies that effectively crosses organisational boundaries, be it across group, territory or even inter-company.
  • Failing to provide alternative and more effective communication channels; James rightly points out that there aren’t great alternatives and where there are, they aren’t broadly implemented yet.
  • Tools don’t change culture — e-mail is embedded culturally in an organisation. This is a point I’d like to expand on.

While in general we’ve had very good support for our Enterprise 2.0 initiatives (roughly 80% of users think it adds value to the organisation), it’s also true that lack of e-mail integration has been a continuing issue. Despite the provision of RSS and other alternatives, users largely want to consume content in their inbox. They see e-mail as their “real time” communication, and E2.0 tools as somewhere valuable, but as a secondary destination. This means they want their E2.0 tools to let them know via Newsletters (a selectable hourly, daily or weekly summary) on when there is something pressing and urgent, and to see this in their primary destination (email inbox). Sometimes I think we can see a better future, yet users don’t want to buy this vision — they really want the future to work effectively with today and for them that means the e-mail they love.

The other point I wanted to add into the debate was to expand on the cultural component a little. There is certainly an issue related to the network effect which is “my boss does it, so I have to”, but there are other more subtle cultural things at work as well.

For a long time in many organisations, passing the e-mail buck is the way to clear the decks and say “job’s done”. When I e-mail you, I have a reliable trail that shows it went from me to you and you’re now responsible for the next action. Until we can reliably show that our Enterprise 2.0 systems have this kind of authority for users — that me blogging about it, updating a wiki etc. is sufficient for you to know you need to act then e-mail will remain. Until I can be confident that in an E2.0 consumer centric world (as opposed to a distributor push like e-mail) that you consume the content you have to, then e-mail will remain. It’s even more subtle than that, e-mail lets me make sure you consume (or at least are responsible for consuming) the content I think you have to, rather than E2.0 where you have a lot more choice and degrees of freedom.

The unfortunate reality for most Enterprises until either a tool comes along that works alongside their culture to advance the change away from e-mail or there is a significant cultural change initiative to change the way that people work and think, email will remain because it works the way the organisation does. I see Enterprise 2.0 tools as part of this cultural shift, but until they embrace e-mail as a primary delivery mechanism, they’ll struggle to get acceptance as a first class citizen for information delivery in the eyes of the users.

Google Wave is interesting because from what I understand it doesn’t replace e-mail but rather enhances it and fits in the first category of a tool that works alongside culture. We need more of this, what I’m calling “People Centric Software”, smart tools that work the way users want to, trying to bring the best of E2.0 and the 1.0 tools together in a happy synergy. At that’s what we will be focusing on.