The Internet Engineering Task Force published the riveting-sounding document, “Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) Part One: Format of Internet Message Bodies,” almost 20 years ago to the day.

And while it doesn't sound like much, Designated Request for Comment (RFC) 2045 defined email attachments as a standard. By doing so, MIME opened the door for people to share documents via email with anyone, regardless of email provider, email client software or internet service provider.

What Did You Unleash RFC 2045?

One unintended consequence of RFC 2045 was what we'll call "inbox-based business management." 

We all do it. We keep emails and documents related to dealings with customers, suppliers and partners in our inbox for easy access when we need them. OK, maybe they aren’t so easy to find, but we do have access. 

All of these saved emails add up. According to one survey, approximately 20 percent of business emails still contain attachments. 

In the 20 years since the advent of attachments, business has seen the rise and fall of many generations of computers, telephones, enterprise applications and collaboration technologies — yet email continues to be the way we manage our businesses. 

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Several reasons account for the resilience of inbox-based business management, including:

♦ Standards — Email is one of the few communication technologies that became a broadly-adopted standard. Today, if you want to communicate with someone outside your organization, you have limited choices: telephone, SMS, fax or email. That’s about it.

♦ Habits die hard — Like all other habits, once people became used to using email, it became the de facto tool for communication. Applying the 10x Economic Theory, any viable alternative to email would have to be perceived as being, not just better, but 10 times better.  To date, no technology has met that challenge.

♦ Perceived control — there is a perception that having all your emails and documents in your Inbox gives you control; to be able to access information any time you need it. 

Put simply, email works. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

But In This Case, It's Broke

But the thing is email, as used today for managing business processes, is broken. Here's why:

Email myopia

You can only see your own correspondence, you have no access to communications between colleagues. Customer, supplier or partner interactions and project management usually involve many people. Yet, when everyone maintains their own copy of the truth in their inbox, you can’t effectively manage the business.

Missing pieces

Emails and documents represent just one part of a greater picture. For example, a contract is an important document, but it is only one piece of a business deal.  

Myriad other documents, conversations, transactions and emails are concurrently going back and forth between partners. Maintaining a collection of your own emails and documents cannot provide you with an accurate picture of what’s really happening across your business. 

Seek and ye shall (not) find 

As good as search is becoming, it won’t solve the problem of the diverse and conflicting set of terms used in the organization to describe business processes. 

Creating a standard taxonomy across all the data sources is almost never a reality. 

One multinational company is undertaking a several-year program to reconcile terms across more than 200 sources of enterprise data. For most companies, this is not practical. More realistic is the experience of a federal government agency that spent two years building a taxonomy. At the end of the two years, it only agreed on four terms — two were “agency name” and another was “date.” 

Learning Opportunities

Finding stuff in email is complicated, and it will become more complicated over time.

Fix the Email Attachment Problem

After 20 years of email attachments, two new, but completely disconnected technologies are converging to provide a competitive alternative to inbox-based business management. They are the cloud and artificial intelligence. Let’s look at each in turn.

The Business Cloud 

One reason for the historical reliance on business email was a dearth of easy-to-use business apps. Rather than trying to use complicated enterprise software, information workers opted for what was easy. They learned to manage projects and processes using email, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and Excel-based task lists. 

While email and documents still perform critical functions within the business (and will continue to for years to come), we now have good alternatives for fulfilling many business needs traditionally fulfilled using documents. Easy-to-use cloud services are out there for almost any business requirement: everything from project management, help desk, HR, CRM, you name it.  

Armed with a credit card, managers now routinely subscribe to highly-specific apps that serve unique business needs. And information workers are using them. One study found the average enterprise now uses 935 enterprise cloud services.

All these apps means information is now spread over an increasing numbers of data sources, which makes managing the business even more complicated. You might think email (as a standard) would become even more important to get everyone on the same page in this situation.  

But email is not the answer, thanks to another new technology … artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence Connects the Dots

Artificial intelligence (AI), in the form of natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning, offers a practical way to make sense of all that disconnected information. 

NLP provides a practical way to extract topics from multiple data sources. When matched together, these topics reveal a new way to view (and manage) the business. Workers will for the first time be able to search for topics like customers, products, partners or services. AI-based engines tie the pieces together into interesting topics, regardless of the information's data source. Then, by applying machine learning to the workers’ use of topics, AI can refine the topics in operation. 

Eventually, the cloud and AI will deliver what has proven elusive for so long: a way to view and manage the business without complicated apps, massive integration projects — or inbox-based business management.

The Day Email Attachments Died

Inbox-based business management will decline, because soon it will be the more complicated alternative. 

And then, rather than celebrating the 25th anniversary of email attachments, we will commemorate the fifth anniversary of topic computing — the day managing the business left the inbox forever. 

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