Can you remember the first business email you sent? Mine was probably some time in 1990, using VAX/VMS mail while I was working in the London office of Conoco. At the time it seemed almost magical that I could send messages from my desk to people on the Dupont network in Wilmington, Delaware, as long as I could remember the strange sequence of mail routing nodes (for many months, I imagined the mythical MRGATE in the routing was a real person, Mr Gate. I was disappointed to learn later that it stood for Mail Router Gateway).
As a young geek (before geeks became cool) in a placement year as part of a university course, the potential of email as a platform for communication was immediately apparent. I can’t remember very much that I did during the year, but I do remember writing a VMS script to enable us to send each other frequently used notes like “<name> phoned – please call back”. The most commonly used shortcut turned out to be “<name> wants to know if you’re going to the pub this evening”. And so began my long descent into the misuse of business communication tools.
Fast forward 23 years, and actually, surprisingly little has changed. Businesses have been steadily become more and more dependent on email as a means of communication, inboxes have become fuller and fuller, but the fundamental model of one person sending a message to one or more other people has really not changed very much. And I am fairly sure there are still a significant number of “are you going to the pub?” messages sent.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of hosting a discussion with Paul Greenberg, author of CRM At The Speed of Light and often described as “the godfather of CRM”. I have heard him make the point on many occasions that the Web 2.0 trend has been a communication revolution rather than a technical revolution. It has changed the way we communicate with each other, and with businesses. I agree with this, but I would suggest that it has been primarily a business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer revolution. The nature of business-to-business and employee-to-employee communication has not been revolutionised in anything like the same way.
That’s not to say that no one has tried to change the way we communicate within business. The growth of cloud computing has spawned a huge number of products and services promising more efficient ways of working, but none have displaced email as most companies’ primary communication tool. There are many reasons for this which Andrew McAfee’s 9X Email Problem describes very well. But in the last few years there has been a growing acceptance that email is now part of the problem not part of the solution, and is detrimental to business productivity. In short, we are ready for a business version of the communication revolution Paul Greenberg talks about.
This series of articles form a manifesto for this Business Communication Revolution. Over the next 2 months, the series will examine the opportunities that the new generation of communication tools offer businesses and the challenges they face in successful implementation and adoption. It will look at the strengths and weaknesses of new (and not so new) tools such as instant messaging, enterprise social networking, file sharing and task management.
But equally importantly, this series will examine the greatest challenge of all – user behaviour. If all the Business Communication Revolution achieves is move our own poor communication habits from one tool to another, it will have failed. New tools can be the catalyst for more efficient communication, but we need to take responsibility for the way we use these tools, and learn to communicate more effectively.