tarnished crown sign leaning against a fence
Email has withstood threats from ESNs, chat apps and collaboration tools to remain the collaboration tool of choice PHOTO: Bart Everson

As much as the naysayers will hate to hear it, for communication and collaboration, email still reigns supreme.

When I look back at my articles, reports and blogs from the past seven years, I can see how my thinking about email has evolved.

At first, I was skeptical about collaboration software, such as enterprise social networks (ESNs) and chat, and their ability to supplant email. As time went on, I “saw the light” and — in general — supported the new ways of communication companies such as IBM, SAP, Slack and Jive were and still are promoting.

Email's Lingering Hold

Yet working in a large company has made one thing painfully obvious: Despite having enterprise content management, commenting and file sharing baked into applications, and access to many other modes of communications, email still trumps all of these tools in communication and collaboration. 

Email remains the most likely tool teams use to work together. They share files, disseminate minutes of meetings, obtain sign-offs and gather comments about an idea through emails. 

Clearly, email is not going away any time soon.

Why Does Email Still Dominate?

Given the range and scope of new tools available to help people collaborate more effectively, it's natural to wonder why email continues to persist and dominate. 

A few reasons why email is so resilient:

  • It is the lowest common denominator. Other collaboration tools are always presented as additions to email. This is because everyone has access to email without an incremental cost. No additional licenses required, no matter who you want to communicate with: email is always available and on all types of devices
  • Email is improving and adding lots of new features. One look at Microsoft Outlook and IBM Verse makes it apparent how much email has evolved. Both incorporate AI tools for composition and scheduling. Conversation mode, pioneered by Google for Gmail, is now standard and improving for both cloud and desktop versions of these email clients. Integration with cloud services, such as online file sharing applications, is making previously cumbersome activities much easier. This is whittling away at the advantage of both chat and ESNs.
  • It’s hard to extend collaboration tools outside of the company firewall to include partners and customers. Need to communicate with someone who is external to the organization? Email is the easiest choice. They don’t have access to the company chat or ESN application, but they do have email. In many large companies, getting someone from outside the company access to an internal application is like pulling up a boat anchor by hand. Not impossible, but certainly difficult. Email is easy.
  • Email creates groups on the fly through conversations. Each email conversation is essentially its own workspace but requires no administration to create. Forming a group to collaborate with or to add, remove, or change the composition of the group requires no administrative overhead.
  • We know how to manage email in big regulated corporate environments. All the tools and processes for handling and securing email is well known and mature.

No One Refuses Email

It’s not just big companies either. Small companies share many of the same reasons for sticking with email over other collaboration applications. On top of those, network effects are more easily subverted in small companies. As anyone who has used chat or an ESN in a small company knows, it only takes the refusal of one significant person to undermine the tool entirely. 

No one refuses email.

None of this is to say ESNs, chat or other collaboration applications provide no value. When a team commits to using something other than email, they can be quite helpful in facilitating collaborative behaviors. 

But email will likely remain the primary application for business communications and collaboration today — and for a long time to come.