In social enterprise circles, it has become fashionable to dismiss email as the way of the past and not the path to the future.

This particular meme insists that social collaboration tools such as instant messaging, micro-blogging and similar social features will quickly replace the tried-and-true method of sending an email, in much the same way that emails supplanted paper memos.

This bit of conjecture (and that’s what it is) comes from the experience of watching how consumers interact electronically, eschewing email in favor of Facebook or instant messaging and chat.

Fact vs. Fiction

It would be easy to say that most email usage is the same and that’s simply because of what knowledge workers are used to. Subsequently, as new methods of communication emerge, email usage will diminish. Easy but not necessarily correct. ESG research shows that email usage amongst knowledge workers is not only increasing, as opposed to declining, but increasing faster than any other type of business communication.

And consider this: The second fastest growing business communication medium is text messages, which have many of the same characteristics as email. The growth, from the knowledge workers perspective, of both email and text messages far outstrips the growth of any other type of business communication.

Meeting Different Demands

Why might this be? To start with, how people interact as consumers is not the same as how knowledge workers interact within a business environment. Talking to your friends about where to meet up after school or alerting family members to an event are instances that have a completely different set of requirements than explaining complex business issues with a team of professionals. 

Business communications require clarity and often privacy whereas many consumer type communications benefit from the opposite situation. In many cases, business communications favor longer form messages over the quick and short messages common to social networking or social media.

Learning Opportunities

It may well be that new forms of social communication will add to instead of leech from email, growing the overall pool of communications. The implications of this for IT professionals are important. Infrastructure needs for messaging may actually grow faster than expected.

For knowledge workers, the growth in the amount and diversity of communications will increase information overload and demand more, not less, time be devoted to managing business communications. Finally, for the software vendors creating social enterprise software, there is an opportunity to consolidate all of these forms of communication into one easy to use platform, much as Facebook and Google are attempting to do in the consumer space.

Email is not dead or dying. Instead, it continues to grow even as new forms of social communication come online. IT, knowledge workers and vendors need a strategy to deal with the increasing information overload before it overwhelms people and systems alike.

Title image repurposed from jayfish (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more of Tom's thoughts on the social workplace, see his With Employee Engagement, Don't Forget the Humans