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Friends or Foes: Email and Collaboration Software

Lately, we’ve heard a lot about the future of email. Will it still be as prominent or integral to accomplishing work as it is today? Will it be more so? The recent rise and proliferation of collaboration tools has kicked off a bit of a debate. So today I wanted to look at whether email and these new next-generation collaboration tools are friends or foes.

According to a post by Andrew McAfee most new technologies have a significant problem with adoption. Makes sense. We’ve all experienced this one before – the dread of having to learn a new tool and the annoyances that accompany it. What you may not know is that McAfee quantified this phenomenon and named it the 9x email problem. According to McAfee, “the average person will underweight the prospective benefits of a replacement technology for it by about a factor of three, and overweight by the same factor everything they’re being as to give up by not using email.” This is why, for the most of us, this type of a change can feel insurmountable.

So just how did email become the king of electronic communication? “One of our assumptions is that email is easier to use than the alternatives,” writes James Dellow in a recent post. However, email hasn’t always had it this easy. In the early days of email, it faced a number of challenges that hindered its adoption. For example, some of those early issues incurred were the lack of interoperability between different email systems, cost of these early systems, competition for easier to use tools, and the lack of usability and functionality of these early tools. In 1987, David Buerger wrote in an InfoWorld piece that “email systems were still too 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.”

Interoperability was probably the biggest barrier to the adoption of email early on. However, with the development of the Internet and the associated networking technologies helped establish some level of standardization. Once a standard was set, email became indispensable. “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,” wrote Brownell Charlstrom in a 1990 issue of CIO magazine.

“For many people, their preference for email relates not just to the ability to communicate but the familiar interface it offers,” says Dellow. You see as features became standardized in email clients, so did their interfaces. Today, users can open up any email client (Outlook, Yahoo Mail, GMail) and pretty quickly and easily get themselves up and running. “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,” says Dellow. We’re seeing more and more that other enterprise information systems – like document management and CRM tools – being integrated into email clients like Outlook. Also, as social continues to increase its presence in our daily routine and play a larger role in the enterprise, it’s not a far stretch of the imagination that enterprise email solutions will need to adapt – as shown by where IBM is heading.

There is no doubt that email will remain popular and will continue to be an important interface for knowledge workers. It’s this evolution of email that has made and will continue to make it an integral tool for employees. These new enterprise social tools can learn a thing or two from email if they are to become as important a tool as email is today. For example, right now users need interoperability between the various enterprise social systems that exist today, and some degree of user interface standardization much like what he have with email today. I believe that while we’ve heard a lot of talk about one displacing the other, this probably won’t be the case. In fact what we are already seeing and will continue to see in the future is the forming of a strong symbiotic relationship between the two, as knowledge workers develop the skills to leverage the power of both.

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