Just as video did not kill the radio star, social media will not kill e-mail. New York Times Writer David Pogue summed up the idea of technology obsolescence perfectly when he wrote, “TV was supposed to kill radio. The DVD was supposed to kill the Cineplex. Instant coffee was supposed to replace fresh-brewed. But here’s the thing: it never happens…Things don’t replace things; they just add on.”

Let’s add to the list. Social media was supposed to kill e-mail. E-mail has been in the technology dead pool for quite some time. But while the predictions of its demise run rampant, e-mail still chugs along as one of the most ubiquitous technologies, and replacement is still just water cooler talk.

Look at Google Wave for instance. It was launched with great fan fair in May 2009 as a real-time messaging platform. It was to raise the bar for collaboration and interactivity. Fifteen months later, end users decided Google Wave was not a fit for how they worked. Adoption was stagnant and Google ceased development in August 2010. Google Wave didn’t replace e-mail after all.

Similarly, we didn’t replace TV, radio or fresh-brewed coffee either. What we did do, however, was find out how they fit in a brave new world. Momentum around social technologies has been great, and we’re continuing to understand how to most effectively take advantage of these tools. And we can begin to see where e-mail fits in our Enterprise 2.0 world by first realizing that connection and collaboration are two very different entities, each playing an important role in how we work.

Email, Know Thyself

E-mail’s strength lies in connecting, not collaborating. People will connect when there is context, because they have a shared reference point, a reason to connect. At some point, bringing that connection (or connections) into a collaborative environment is necessary to address problem solving because the socially connected people have a basis for their discussion.

This move from a one-to-one e-mail thread to a many-to-many social discussion is an important step for generating ideas, improving productivity and increasing ROI. However, not every interaction between co-workers needs to be a full-blown collaborative, socialized effort.

Sometimes, we just need to send a note as an FYI, and we don’t need input from others about it. When it comes to making enterprise workgroups successful, the purpose of technology always comes down to one thing: Serving the needs of the business and its end users.

One of the biggest collaboration challenges in many organizations continues to be sharing content. E-mail’s purpose and function will continue to evolve as these and other requirements change. For a comparative perspective on this, we can look at the evolution of broadcast TV, which shows similarities to the evolution of e-mail.

Phase one: From labs to standards Broadcast TV was in the labs from the late 1800s until roughly the early 1940s (when the 525 line standard was finally agreed to in the U.S. and the 625 line was standard in Europe). E-mail has its roots in the early 1960s, but took off with the widespread adoption of the SMTP standard in 1982 and interoperability between e-mail systems.
Phase two: The killer app
TV becomes the killer app for home entertainment. E-mail becomes the killer app for business communications.
Phase three: Killer app gets a lot of competition and begins to fragment
Broadcast TV gets augmented by products like TiVo. It begins to be replaced by offerings like Hulu. The big three—NBC, CBS, and ABC—are shrinking every day in terms of audience. Millions of channels now exist on cable, satellite, etc. But broadcast TV is still here and will be for some time. (Note the new trend with the advent of HD. Some people are cutting cable and going back to broadcast TV.) E-mail gets augmented with Internet services such as Yahoo! and Gmail, and e-mail is being replaced by Twitter, Facebook, etc.But e-mail is still here.

While e-mail and broadband are still preferred and appropriate means of communication in some situations, they are not in others. The same holds true for social technologies. The trick is finding and capitalizing on the strong suits of each.

Learning Opportunities

E-mail Might be Dethroned (but it Still has a Place at the Roundtable)

Maybe it’s because end-of-year pontifications are upon us, but there are some universal reflections about the role of e-mail in our future. John Brunswick recently covered the topic, and stands by e-mail, at least for now. So does Nick Ingelbrecht, Research Director at Gartner, who believes e-mail remains “alive and well.”

Geoff Bock, Senior Analyst of Collaboration and Enterprise Social Software for the Gilbane Group, made a comment at the Gilbane 2009 conference that going in to work might become "oh-so 20th century.”

But while working from home suits many workers, the majority still suit-up and go in to the office at least a few times a week. Working from home has its place, but it’s not going to make the physical office obsolete.

Perhaps the biggest challenge e-mail faces -- and the one that will knock it off its pedestal -- is its lack of ability to preserve and share knowledge. Organizations must also constantly deal with the effects of employee turnover associated with natural attrition, retiring workforces and mobility. The need to capture collective knowledge is an essential part of business operations.

Striking the right balance between access, collaboration and control of knowledge and information is an imperative. Looking at a range of socially enabled tools can help build collaborative environments. Blogs are good for certain types of collaboration, discussion forums for others, and corporate wikis for yet others.

Just like e-mail, each has its place. But in order to survive and thrive, each must contribute to the organization’s collective goals.