Discussion Point Why are We Still Stuck on Email

Discussion Point: Why are We Still Stuck on Email?

7 minute read
Siobhan Fagan avatar

Email: productivity's favorite punching bag. The complaints against email are well known. It's a time suck and ineffective for large scale communication, yet most of us still turn to it on a daily, if not hourly basis to communicate with others (with some notable exceptions succeeding without).

Some companies are experimenting with banning email communication during non-work hours while others have banned internal email

If email is truly the scourge that it is painted out to be, what explains its holding power? 

The Question 

In spite of numerous reports of email's imminent death in the workplace, it still holds on. One reporter goes so far as to proclaim it the best thing on the Internet. How do you explain email's continued grip and where did the software tools meant to replace it go wrong?

Alan Lepofsky, VP and Principal Analyst, Constellation Research


With almost two decades of experience in the collaboration software industry, Lepofsky helps organizations improve the way their employees work together to get their jobs done more effectively. Lepofsky's primary research into The Future of Work includes Purposeful Collaboration, Social Task Management, Digital Proficiency (skill instead of age), NextGen Content Creation and Sharing, Gamification and Social Analytics. Tweet to Alan Lepofsky.

Few IT topics spark more heated debates than email versus social networking. Below are my thoughts on two of the most frequently asked questions on this topic.

How do you explain email's continued grip on the workplace?

The reason email is so widely used is that it works so easily. People can use any email client, on any device, on any operating system to send messages to anyone else in the world. This works inside the same company, between two different companies or even between multiple companies. Just enter the recipient’s addresses, click send and voila. Think of email as one giant social network that everyone is a member of.

Compare this to enterprise social networks (ESN), where messages are only available to the members of the community where the message is posted. Conversations can not travel between networks, so when people want to have conversations with people in other companies, they have to invite those people (ironically almost always via email) into a common community.

Where did the software tools meant to replace email go wrong?

Well, I would not say they have all gone wrong, but social networking has introduced a new set of its own challenges leading to what I call Social Fatigue. Here are two challenges:

  • Social networks contain too much information. If you thought keeping up with your email was hard, try keeping up with an activity stream containing posts from everyone in your company. While many people practice the email management technique “Inbox Zero,” have you ever heard of “Newsfeed Zero”?
  • Managing all that information is not easy. I have not seen a social network with content management features such as sorting, color coding, prioritizing, flagging, folders and automatic rules the way email clients do. Yes, many social networks are using analytics to “intelligently” filter the stream, but this algorithmic approach still has many challenges, just look at Facebook. 

Erik M. Hartman, Owner, Erik Hartman Communicatie


Hartman consults, presents and publishes about information management strategy, architecture, governance, and tools. With the Information Management Foundation (TIMAF) he created an initiative with other information management practitioners to provide a strong and clear foundation of information management. Erik lives on a houseboat and has his office in the historic centre of Utrecht (Netherlands). Tweet to Erik M. Hartman.

Good old email. So many people want to kill it or declare it's death. But it won't die. It's been used, abused, cursed even. But it's still going strong.

Three years ago I wrote that email isn't dead yet. And that's still true.

This month I received similar emails from two different people who changed their jobs and wanted to make sure I would receive their new contact information. They did that by sending me an email.

Last week I rented a car. Received the confirmation by email. Then I booked a hotel. Received the confirmation by email. Bought flight tickets. Received the e-ticket by email.

There's a lot of trust in email. We all know this question too well: “Did you forget your password?” We trust email enough to send us a link to reset our password. Numerous digital services use email for this kind of authentication.

Without email I wouldn't have a business. Eighty percent of my projects start with an email. I organize a yearly event with speakers from all over the world. We share our information by email.

Learning Opportunities

I can go on and on about the value of email for myself and my business.

You might think: “Yeah, email is for old people like you, Erik. Generation Y and Z don't use email. It's totally 'has been.'”

Well, I asked my 22 year old sister-in-law if she uses email. This girl is practically glued to her smartphone and tablet. She communicates 24/7 on Facebook, Messenger, Viber, Whatsapp and other social apps. “Yes, of course I use email”, she replied. “If I need to confirm something or if it's something official.”

We are now in the maturity phase of email. We learned to use other channels for direct communication, sharing documents and such. Email is so simple and elegant that we abused it for other stuff. That is going to end, although at a slower pace than information professionals would like.

But it's not going away for a long time.

Rob Howard, Chief Technology Officer, Zimbra.


Telligent, the company Howard founded in 2004, acquired Zimbra from VMware in July 2013, and the two businesses merged to form Zimbra, Inc., a provider of unified collaboration and community software. With more than 15 years of experience in the technology sector, Howard is known throughout the industry as an authority in community and collaboration software. Follow him on Twitter at Rob Howard.

Have you signed up for one of the many apps or tools meant to replace email? What’s the first thing they ask for: an email address.

Email is a fundamental part of the Internet, just as the Web browser and HTML are. Its standardization and ubiquity guarantee it is never going away.

Why should email die? Why can’t it evolve and improve instead? I see email as a technology that has seen little to no innovation in the past 20 years and that represents a market opportunity, which is why we acquired Zimbra from VMware.

Most social technology apps do nothing more than provide alternative channels for communication to take place. The real problem lies in how to choose the right channel of communication -- from options like chat, phone, email, instant message, activity stream, forums and comments -- to reach your intended audience. Even tangential technologies like file sharing could benefit from better integration with email, because the #1 way files are shared is through email.

How can email evolve more quickly?

  1. Open standards and new modern API designs that unlock the API monopoly that large vendors like Microsoft have on email (through ActiveSync and Exchange Web Services). I really like what Google is doing with Gmail -- creating a new modern REST-based API, something that we are doing at Zimbra as well.
  2. Borrow from some of the great user experience designs pioneered by enterprise social software. Some of this is already evident in new mobile email apps, but many are still fettered to the legacy APIs.
  3. Better integration with common work streams of daily business users. For example, Zimbra acquired Mezeo to speak to the enterprise need for file sharing through email in a way that makes it natively integrated.

Many social software vendors claimed early on to be a replacement for email. While ideas and features were introduced in enterprise social tools, these vendors limited themselves to specific use cases that were unable to cover the full spectrum of business communications -- including the integration of email.