We have been struggling with the downside of email for quite a while — it's high time to act.
The engineers that created the early corporate email systems in the late 70's were well aware that email wasn't at all suitable for many-to-many communication. They were, for good reasons, concerned that the "push" nature of email communication would cause information overload and create massive amounts of duplicated information.
Yet, what kept them awake at night back then was likely not those things, but rather how to reduce the cost of each email being sent, how to get buy-in and support from top management without being able to calculate any ROI and how to achieve broader adoption of the new technology.
It's time to put this history behind us. Here are four things organizations should start doing right away to make the move away from email.
1. Put an end to the information bombardment
One of the reasons why people are bombarded with irrelevant information is that there is no way to opt out for the recipient. It is the sender that decides who should receive a message. It doesn't matter if the recipient finds the information irrelevant or of little value.
Social technologies such as micro-blogging allow each and everyone to choose which conversations they want to participate in and contribute to — which most likely will be the ones where they can add most value and in which they enjoy participating.
Giving people the power to opt out of conversations is what is required to put an end to the information bombardment.
2. Avoid accidental information leakages
Who doesn't have a story to tell about accidental leaks of internal information caused by simply adding the wrong recipient to an email or replying to an email without checking who is on the list of recipients?
Not using email for internal communication will significantly decrease the risk of employees accidentally sending sensitive information to external stakeholders. If the information is posted on a blog, wiki or social networking platform instead, the information is much less likely to be leaked by accident.
3. Clean up the conversation mess
Email works quite well for broadcasting information to people. But for many-to-many conversations it fails miserably. As soon as the communication involves more than a handful of people, trying to have conversation quickly leads to conversation chaos.
Fortunately, most sensible people think twice before they use the reply all feature of email. But that is also unfortunate, since it means that misunderstandings don’t get sorted out and that valuable feedback isn't shared.
Most social tools are designed for many-to-many conversations. When a conversation is taking place on an open social platform, anyone who wants to can choose to join. As each message exists in one copy and the conversation is held together in one single thread, a conversation doesn't get out of control as more people join. The “pull” nature allows people to take part of a conversation without getting bombarded with each and every message that is posted.
4. Set information free!
When we exchange business information via email it ends up in our inbox. From there it has no chance of being discovered, accessed and used by other people who might need it. If we are lucky, we can find the information ourselves by searching our inbox, but even that is hard to do.
Information that is posted on a blog, wiki or social networking platform is accessible and searchable for anyone who has the proper rights. Furthermore, the information does not need to be duplicated for each person who should receive it. By reducing information redundancy, not only can findability be improved but the cost of information management will also most likely decrease.
Failure is necessary for success
The obvious remedy for the problems mentioned above is to only use email for the things it's really suited for and to introduce alternative communication tools where necessary. Given the problems with email, it shouldn't be allowed to remain as important to an organization as the central nervous system is to the human body.
It is clear that social technologies will play a key role in a communication system that better supports the collaborative, unpredictable and dynamic nature of knowledge work. Many organizations are well on their way to get the technology in place, while others are just getting started.
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