Enterprise chat, sometimes referred to as team messaging, has emerged as a viable alternative to email and might just knock it off its throne. At the very least, there is the potential for enterprise chat to absorb much of the communication that is now done through email.

Since the emergence of email as the primary form of corporate communication, everyone has complained that there is too much of it. What knowledge workers really mean (unless they’re talking about spam) is that it is too hard to use for the way most people want to communicate: What they seek are conversations, not electronic letters. 

Before email, corporate knowledge workers wrote memos (on paper!) for insiders and letters for outsiders. These forms of communication served the corporate hierarchy of the time. Memos went up and down the chain of command, and letters were formal messages between the company and its vendors and customers. 

Email was originally a reflection of that culture. As corporate culture became less hierarchical, email came to be used more and more for less official communication, effectively replacing conversations that would in the past have required a meeting – or at least a water cooler. But email is an unsatisfying medium for informal, conversational communications, because it was designed for more formal, letter-like statements.

Tweaking the Model

There have been a number of attempts to change the way email operates, usually by changing the email client. Google tried valiantly by linking emails into conversations, a method since adopted by just about all email clients. Alas, it still didn’t change the basic way that email handles communications – with signatures and headers and all of the proper parts of a letter. 

More recently, IBM has come up with a way of taking an email chain, stripping it of the parts that don’t matter in a conversation, and presenting it more conversationally. That may be fine if you are an IBM Verse user, not so much if you use any other email client. 

All these attempts at improving email have failed to create change because email itself was not designed for what the end-user is trying to do. It’s like trying to drive a car in the water. You can add a snorkel, but it’s still not a boat. 

There have been many attempts to supplant email entirely. For a while, instant messaging was thought to be the best way to support conversations. However, it is predominantly a one-to-one interaction. Using IM for multi-party conversations is confusing, especially if not everyone is available at the same time. 

Enterprise social networks also tried to take some conversations offline and out of email. Unfortunately, conversations are meant to be real-time, and enterprise social networks were never really as focused on conversing as they are on sharing content. Enterprise social networks are meant for large groups, not team communications, making them unwieldy for quick conversations among a handful of people. 

Enter Enterprise Chat

Like its consumer counterpart, enterprise chat has the advantage of being purpose-built for conversations. Typical enterprise chat products support both real-time and offline modes for the same conversation. Conversations are persistent, which helps make them searchable as well. 

Most importantly, enterprise chat products’ interfaces are designed from the ground up to facilitate more immediate interactions even when there are several participants. This is the exact circumstance where email fails. If there is anything email does not do well it is handling an informal, multi-party conversation where some people are online and some are not. This is where enterprise chat excels. 

Enterprise chat does have an Achilles heel. Unlike email, enterprise chat apps are proprietary software products that do not communicate with each other. One of the reasons that email has continued to thrive and grow is because any email system can talk to any other one via standard mail agent protocols and MIME content standards. 

At the moment, enterprise chat does not have this common language that allows systems to speak to each other. Conversations can happen within a team and organization, but it is difficult to involve someone outside the organization, unless they use the platform that the conversation started in. 

The experience of enterprise chat is precisely what organizations need to facilitate the most common type of communication in organizations – informal, flexible and able to include one or many people who are available both online and offline. If only the current platforms could talk to each other, enterprise chat would certainly help slay the email monster.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  stevendepolo