“You’ve got…mail.” Fifteen years ago, this statement created the excitement of receiving a letter from a friend in the mail. And it wasn’t just at home. Without a doubt, email was one of the two most important developments in corporate communications of the last twenty years. (The other was mobile telephony). But the genie is out of the bottle.

Fifteen years ago, the average business email load was 15 messages per day (Personnel Journal, 1996, p. 23.). Between 1998 and 2003, the number of incoming email messages per day doubled (International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 15:3,2003, pp. 419-431.). Today, the average information worker receives hundreds of messages per day and the load is growing. And it is not just email -- to stay current and complete today’s job tasks, business workers rely upon a bevy of applications, web and cloud services and collaboration tools.

Each of these tools need to be monitored and updated on a regular basis. ‘Checking in’ today means toggling between a dizzying array of disconnected windows and browser tabs. This results in a drain on productivity and a severe negative impact on our mental well being.

The situation is becoming so acute that it has spawned numerous articles and books. (See for example the New York Times recent 7-part series on ‘digital overload,’ The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers). Something’s got to be done.

The 'Rip and Replace' Approach

In order to reduce the clutter, some have proposed dispensing with email all together and adopting a completely new ’Enterprise 2.0’ platform that incorporates all the information and communication channels we need in one place. Great idea. Not practical.

Getting disparate systems to communicate is very difficult. Incorporating all information into a single platform is science fiction. Despite the ambitions of Microsoft, Google and IBM, the enterprise will never be a single-vendor place.

Why Email is Here to Stay

The reality is that email will remain the place where business people will interact with colleagues for the foreseeable future. Here’s why:

  • They spend lots of time there -- A recent uSamp survey showed that 25% of business people spend half their day in email, and over 75% spend at least two hours every day in email.
  • Important social connections are already maintained in email -- The Outlook/Notes contact list is the de facto directory for most business people.
  • It’s packed with important information -- Business-critical documents and text messages reside in the Inbox.
  • Next-generation Enterprise 2.0 tools are disruptive and require a change in business user behavior. Perceived marginal utility is low and switching costs/adoption are high.

On the other hand, new collaboration technologies are compelling. Taking a cue from what is happening in the consumer world, it is apparent that tools like Facebook and Twitter provide capabilities that many people crave.

While these tools are clearly not appropriate for the corporate world for a variety of reasons (security, ownership of data, displayed ads, etc.), there is a desire to bring this functionality to the corporate user. Better collaboration usually translates into better execution, lower costs and increased productivity and transparency.

So What's it Going To Be?

So what is it going to be? ‘Email forever’ or ‘rip and replace?’ Both….and neither.

I firmly believe that the business world will take a practical approach. The extensibility of the two reigning corporate email platforms, Microsoft Exchange/Outlook and Lotus Notes, offers a third alternative.

Email will evolve into ‘social email,’ which is a console that integrates best of breed collaboration tools.

Social email will use people’s existing social connections to create a people-centric context for collaborative interactions across the gamut of collaboration ‘channels,’ such as email, instant messaging, social networks, videoconferencing, VOIP, document co-editing, text messages, mobile status updates, etc. 

One email window will provide a single people-centric context for all collaborative interactions, across a variety of vendors’ products. harmon.ie (www.harmon.ie) is one example of a product that takes such an approach. In the social networking space, Rockmelt (www.rockmelt.com) is doing something similar to aggregate social networking tools and capabilities within a single browser window, through a single online persona.

The bottom line is that several years down the road, we will hardly recognize our email experience. It may not even be called email by then. Either way, we will adopt many of the new, but nascent collaboration modalities, but it will be done in a gradual, measured way -- one step at a time.