Love it or hate it, email forms a major part of most knowledge workers’ communication. Some see it as the bane of their working life, while others praise its simplicity and ubiquity. And as usual when such a disparity of opinions exists, the truth lies somewhere in between. In order to have any sort of intelligent debate about how to improve business communication, we need an understanding of email’s strengths and weaknesses, and use this to identify where email should and should not be used.
Five good things about email:
- Ubiquity – almost every internet-enabled device can send and receive emails – you can read email on your PC, tablet, phone and receive email alerts from your security webcam or maybe even your fridge.
- Openness – standards such as SMTP, IMAP and POP make it very easy for email capabilities to be added to new applications and devices.
- Simplicity – for simple person-to-person discussions that have no lasting importance, email is perfectly adequate.
- It is less disruptive than instant messaging or phone calls, allowing the recipient to read and reply when they are ready.
- Everyone knows how to use it (although not necessarily how to use it well).
Five bad things about email:
- It is increasingly hard to separate signal from noise. The long-standing problems caused by spam have mostly been defeated with improved spam filters. But most filters now err on the side of over-zealousness, meaning important messages sometimes fail to get through. And when they do get through, they often end up competing for your attention with those notifications from your fridge or webcam.
- It is a poor tool for conversations between more than 2 people. With different people replying at different times, the number of messages proliferates and it can be very hard to follow the thread of the discussion. As more participants are added, this problem gets exponentially worse, with no one person owning a single, definitive copy of the conversation.
- It tempts people into a cc-all habit. As email conversations progress, the distribution list tends to get bigger rather than smaller. This is usually to compensate for the push-nature of email – people get added to the cc list to ensure they are aware that the conversation exists (even if they have no need to participate in it), or often out of the sender’s fear of causing offence by not including someone.
- It fragments corporate knowledge. A huge amount of a company’s knowledge is held in email discussions, and these typically live in individual employees’ mail folders, rather than as a central company resource. (In a deliciously ironic twist to the ongoing NSA surveillance scandal, the NSA recently claimed that it had no way of searching across all its employees’ email).
- It lacks accountability. “Read receipts” on emails are notoriously unreliable, so you often don’t know if the recipient is going to do what you asked them to in an email, or whether they even received this email until they reply. I’m sure we have all sent more “did you receive this message?” or “please can you reply to my earlier message?” emails than we care to mention.
Despite this “bad things” list, email is now so well established and so widespread, it is unrealistic to expect it to disappear from our working lives any time soon. So instead we need to make sure we use it for the things it is good at, and avoid it for things it is bad at. This typically means finding a better tool for group discussions that should be retained to form part of an organisation’s collective knowledge. Over the last few years, enterprise social networks (ESNs) have emerged as a solution to this problem, offering a pull-based environment where people can dip in and out of the discussions they are interested in. We will come back to ESNs in later in the series.
The lack of accountability of email has also led to the rise of task management systems, offering the author greater visibility and traceability than before. But these are often standalone systems, adding yet another communication channel and perpetuating the fragmentation of knowledge across different tools.
This highlights one of major obstacles to escaping from the tyranny of email – there is currently no one tool that provides the right environment for all the types of communication email is used for. So it is perhaps inevitable that knowledge workers fall back on email as their communication workhorse rather than commit themselves to checking lots of different inboxes for different types of communication. This is something of a vicious circle – if we are to improve the efficiency of business communication, we need to break this circle.