Has e-mail had its day

This interview with Thierry Breton about his zero internal e-mail plan for ATOS caught my eye a few weeks ago.  Actually M. Bretton’s pronouncement isn’t new, he first made it in Feb this year, but the BBC interview comes at a time when the idea has achieved new currency with similar pronouncements about the death of e-mail as we know it from a range of commentators.

Of course some of these need taking with a pinch of salt. Mark Zuckerberg telling us that Facebook Messaging will probably render e-mail obsolete is hardly a independent data point, but what is true is that the stats show e-mail use is falling dramatically within some groups and using some technologies. The much quoted ComScore report if you read the whole thing, shows webmail use falling like a stone in the 12-17 age group and less dramatic falls in use among 18-22 year olds but actually saw an increase in email use among older age groups as well as a huge 30-40% increase in mobile e-mail usage, so this is a much more balanced picture than the headlines portray.

If we forget the stats for a moment, what we should be asking is “is e-mail the best tool for internal communication?“. The answer depends on what kind of communication, for some things e-mail is a pretty good tool, for others it is terrible!

For those of us in the generation that introduced e-mail into a workplace where letters, fax and even telex were the norm for written communication, it can seem like e-mail is now the universal communication tool. It is fairly timely (although not real-time), reasonably low overhead, produces a persistent record of the communication and can be used to share documents via attachments. The trouble is that whilst it is better than many other forms of written communication that preceded it, it is at best only reasonable at many of the things we now expect it to do.

We expect real time delivery of e-mail, but in reality it is nothing like. E-mail communication is store and forward with variable delays at each stage, add to that the necessary spam filtering with its false positives, and the fact that I have sent an e-mail gives me no guarantee at all that you will receive it in any particular timeframe or indeed at all. How many hours a year do you waste making phone calls to check that an e-mail has been received?

Now the low overhead and persistent record thing. Sure, just typing a few lines of e-mail and pressing send is pretty quick, but because it is a fairly formal communication that often isn’t what happens! We know that whatever we say now will likely be archived by the recipient and may be forwarded to others or quoted back to us maybe years later. There is therefore an implied necessity to choose our words very carefully lest they be mis-interpreted so that quick two minute reply becomes a paralysing proposition of checking, wording and re-wording. Is that really a vast leap forward from writing formal letters to each other?

Social networking users, particularly the key school leaver and “new graduate” age groups have worked out that Instant Messaging is synchronous and offers lower overhead communication which makes it very appropriate for most informal communication in peer groups. Like it or not, they will be the folks that shape how our workplaces communicate over the next few years and I confidently predict that few will have a preference for e-mail.

Of course e-mail is also useful because we can use it to share working and formal documents via attachments right? This is actually the bit that e-mail is really bad at. When I get sent documents for comment and review by e-mail, firstly a whole copy of the document (1st copy) ends up in my mailbox and everyone else it was sent to. I open it up to edit or make a comment and have to manually save it to a local or network file system (2nd copy) . I then have to compose a reply, remember to manually attach the right version of my edited copy and send it back to the originator where it then sits in my Sent mailbox (3rd copy) and their inbox (4th copy). If they then want to edit it, they have to save the copy locally (5th copy) and so on!

Shared document workspaces (even if they are just a basic fileshare with some versioning conventions) are a much more efficient and less error prone way of collaborating on documents.

Whilst an outright ban on internal e-mail would be unworkable for us as most of the e-mail we exchange daily does in any case originate or end up externally, I think we need to start challenging ourselves about each e-mail we send. We need to work out if we may just get better value out of our and the recipient’s time by using IM, or just walking a couple of metres down the corridor and talking to them.

So e-mail, a superb efficiency tool that has transformed the workplace or a much abused time wasterPlease leave a comment.



About Rob Pickering

Rob is a reformed software engineer who has spent much of his life developing computer networking applications and infrastructure. His career started in the 1980s with hands on development of the Internet TCP/IP protocol stack through a spell as a development manager at 3Com in the 1990s before founding ipcortex where he is currently our CEO.
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