Is email really the nemesis of better collaboration software?


Collaboration software, including the latest generation of enterprise social software, is often put forward as a more effective alternative to email-based communication. But people aren't always convinced - they want to know why they should use a new tool over email which has generally served them quite well, what Andrew McAfee called the 9X email problem. Other than a few brave souls who have gone email free inside the enterprise, for most of us this challenge can feel insurmountable.

Following the technology history theme of some of my recent posts (here and over on CMSWire), I decided to look back at the history of email to see how strong its claim to the electronic communication 'crown' really is.

When did email become an essential business tool?

One of our assumptions is that email is easier to use than the alternatives, but this wasn't always the case. In the early days of business email, it faced a number of its own challenges that impacted its adoption - this included:

  1. Interoperability between different email systems.
  1. Usability and functionality of email software.
  1. Competition from other easier to use communication technologies.
  1. Cost of subscribing and using an email service.

In 1987, David J. Buerger wrote in InfoWorld that email systems were still to hard to use and lacked the advanced features users needed. However, he predicted:

"I believe E-Mail will earn a berth in everyone's bag of indispensable business tools once these problems are solved."

Source: Buerger, D. J., 1987, 'E-Mail Systems Need Some Improvements to Become Essential Business Tools', InfoWorld, 12 October, p.19.

A few years later, CIO magazine reported that in companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Chevron in the United States, e-mail was proving to be popular with sales teams. E-mail was seen a beneficial because salespeople felt less isolated and it reduced the problem of playing telephone tag. However, it was also noted that e-mail was felt to generate a sense of "urgency" than a message written on paper.

Source: Yovovich, B. G., 1989, 'Big Brother in a Laptop', CIO magazine, May 1989, p.22.

Clearly, hints at the future downside of email were already being felt.

Its all about the network

Interoperability was probably the biggest barrier to the adoption of email in the late 1980s, the decade during which personal computers and local area networks entered the workplace. The development of the Internet and the associated networking technologies eventually helped to drive standardisation. These technology developments were critical to making email both affordable and useful as a business communication tool.

In 1990, Brownell Chalstrom wrote in CIO magazine that:

"electronic mail has taken a while to become indispensable. But today the business world is in love E-Mail.

Once a two-lane road for store-and-forward messages between individuals, today's E-mail links departments within companies. It links companies with suppliers, customers, consultants and even the press."

Source: Chalstrom, B., 1990, 'Son of Email', CIO magazine, September 1990, p.10.

With the appearance of the World Wide Wed in 1994, work on Web-based interfaces for email begin immediately and this further extended the reach of email, entrenching it as a practical communication tool for both business and home users - for example, Hotmail appeared in 1996.

However, email didn't have a completely free ride - during this entire period and into the mid 2000s, the fax machine continued to compete strongly with email. For example, the BBC reported that 40% more pages faxed in 2002 than the previous year. If you thought email was a killer app, then the humble fax machines also offered many advantages over early email systems - a fax machine was easy to use, it could accept any kind of content (text, images and handwriting), could be cheaper to operate and was the only option for quickly exchanging legal contracts, until electronic signatures became accepted. Eventually fax and email became integrated through the use of modems that supported faxing and fax gateways, that treated faxes like email.

Incidentally, Japan remains an anomaly in the decline of the fax machine; the ongoing popularity of the fax in Japan perhaps points to relative benefits of email in regard to the overarching context for use.

The interface factor

For many people, their preference for email relates not just to the ability to communicate but the familiar interface it offers.

For example, since its first release in 1997, Microsoft Outlook has become the default interface for work activities (communication and meetings) experienced by many business users. Other enterprise information systems - like document management and customer relationship management - are even integrated into the Outlook interface. For example, offers integration between Outlook and SharePoint, Microsoft's own collaboration solution.

However, the nature of how email and social media work together may still drive more fundamental changes to our relationship to these familiar interfaces. In October, AOL announced a private beta of a new email aggregator, for consumers, called Alto:

"Alto makes 'stacks' out of social notifications from Facebook or Twitter, retail emails, daily deals and anything else you want to organize in your email. It's also smart enough to pull out and stack the things you might want to find easily, such as photos and attachments."

Email is no longer just used for direct communication between people, but has become a universal inbox for many different types of communication, alerts and notifications. As more social platforms enter the enterprise, its likely that enterprise email solutions will need to adapt (which appears to be where IBM is heading).

Email is dead. Long live email

There is no doubt that email remains popular and will continue to be an important interface for knowledge workers. However, email was not automatically accepted as a communication and collaboration tool. The longevity of the fax machine also demonstrates that the earlier generations of enterprise email weren't necessarily considered to be the easiest or best option by business users. In fact, without the standardisation of networks encouraged by the development of the Internet, email might never have reached the level of ubiquity it enjoys today. Email has evolved continuously during its use in the business world and with the emergence of enterprise social software this trend is likely to continue.

Enterprise social software can also learn some important lessons from email:

Far from being a nemesis, email and enterprise social software are more likely to form a strong symbiotic relationship.