We have been struggling with the downside of email for quite a while -- it's high time to act. 

The engineers that created the early corporate email systems in the late 70's were well aware that email wasn't at all suitable for many-to-many communication. They were, for good reasons, concerned that the "push" nature of email communication would cause information overload and create massive amounts of duplicated information. 

Yet, what kept them awake at night back then was likely not those things, but rather how to reduce the cost of each email being sent, how to get buy-in and support from top management without being able to calculate any ROI and how to achieve broader adoption of the new technology.

It's time to put this history behind us. Here are four things organizations should start doing right away to make the move away from email.

1. Put an end to the information bombardment

One of the reasons why people are bombarded with irrelevant information is that there is no way to opt out for the recipient. It is the sender that decides who should receive a message. It doesn't matter if the recipient finds the information irrelevant or of little value.

Social technologies such as micro-blogging allow each and everyone to choose which conversations they want to participate in and contribute to -- which most likely will be the ones where they can add most value and in which they enjoy participating.

Giving people the power to opt out of conversations is what is required to put an end to the information bombardment.

2. Avoid accidental information leakages

Who doesn't have a story to tell about accidental leaks of internal information caused by simply adding the wrong recipient to an email or replying to an email without checking who is on the list of recipients?

Not using email for internal communication will significantly decrease the risk of employees accidentally sending sensitive information to external stakeholders. If the information is posted on a blog, wiki or social networking platform instead, the information is much less likely to be leaked by accident.

3. Clean up the conversation mess


Email works quite well for broadcasting information to people. But for many-to-many conversations it fails miserably. As soon as the communication involves more than a handful of people, trying to have conversation quickly leads to conversation chaos.

Fortunately, most sensible people think twice before they use the reply all feature of email. But that is also unfortunate, since it means that misunderstandings don’t get sorted out and that valuable feedback isn't shared.

Most social tools are designed for many-to-many conversations. When a conversation is taking place on an open social platform, anyone who wants to can choose to join. As each message exists in one copy and the conversation is held together in one single thread, a conversation doesn't get out of control as more people join. The “pull” nature allows people to take part of a conversation without getting bombarded with each and every message that is posted.

4. Set information free!

When we exchange business information via email it ends up in our inbox. From there it has no chance of being discovered, accessed and used by other people who might need it. If we are lucky, we can find the information ourselves by searching our inbox, but even that is hard to do.

Information that is posted on a blog, wiki or social networking platform is accessible and searchable for anyone who has the proper rights. Furthermore, the information does not need to be duplicated for each person who should receive it. By reducing information redundancy, not only can findability be improved but the cost of information management will also most likely decrease.

Failure is necessary for success

The obvious remedy for the problems mentioned above is to only use email for the things it's really suited for and to introduce alternative communication tools where necessary. Given the problems with email, it shouldn't be allowed to remain as important to an organization as the central nervous system is to the human body.

It is clear that social technologies will play a key role in a communication system that better supports the collaborative, unpredictable and dynamic nature of knowledge work. Many organizations are well on their way to get the technology in place, while others are just getting started.

However, as many studies have shown recently, a lot of them are struggling with achieving tangible business results. But this should come as no surprise, as we are in the beginning of a paradigm shift in how we communicate with each other.

This phase has to be experimental, as there are really not enough past experiences to lean upon and no textbooks in which to look for answers. We have to experiment to learn what works and what doesn't. This is also why we should be careful to draw too far-reaching conclusions from the data and statistics we are currently getting about existing efforts introducing social tools and platforms in organizations.

Furthermore, we should bear in mind that for virtually any new communication technology, including email, it took many years to figure out the business use cases and to achieve widespread adoption. From the early internal corporate email systems that were introduced in the late 70's and early 80's it took more than a decade, in some cases two, before email had reach enterprise-wide adoption in organizations. And they stumbled on pretty much the same barriers to adoption that we are experiencing now with social tools, especially those that have to do with people changing their mindsets and habits. We need perseverance.

Don’t just drop a platform on people

Gartner recently predicted 80% of all internal social business efforts will fail, largely due to the way organizations are approaching them. Those of us who have repeatedly warned of the same thing happening probably find it good when institutions like Gartner help to bring this to the attention of the decision makers.

The general advice to any organization that is about to embark on the social business journey is that it can't just drop a platform on people from the sky, like many organizations have done with ERP systems. It doesn’t even work that well for ERP systems, but when it comes to introducing new tools for collaborative knowledge work, such an approach is destined to fail.

To make it to the other side of this paradigm shift, we have to be more like social scientists, trying to understand what is happening on the ground: the purpose and nature of work that is to be performed, the needs of the people who are performing it, and the situations these people find themselves in.

We have to approach any change in ways of working with the utmost sensitivity and aim to empower the people who are subject to the change both to understand the reasons behind it and to take responsibility for implementing it themselves. And we have to experiment, not be afraid to try new things.

If we just take it step-by-step, learn from our failures and adjust our strategies when necessary, we will soon see social technologies replace email as the central nervous system in our organizations.

Image courtesy of Lim Yong Hian (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: This is a follow up to Oscar's Time to Break the Habit of Internal Email