“Hype” and “digital technology” tend to go hand in hand.

While we can point the finger of blame at software vendors and other digitally disruptive startups for driving the focus on dubious short term benefits, consumers of technology want this too. Civic minded users may adopt a technology because of its future impact on the collective good, but mostly we look for instant gratification.

This pattern plays out within organisations too. For example, much of the discussion around enterprise social software right now is the promise of empowering users and changing the very structures of organisations into networks – making them agile, flatter and hopefully more responsive to customers. But technology tends to be truly disruptive at a societal level over a much longer cycle and the ultimate outcome is far from certain. It is not surprising that people remain skeptical about this vision of the future, even if history tells us radical change like this does eventually happen and become normalised.

Email is a prime example of an enterprise technology caught in the middle of this changing technology and workplace landscape.

At this point I have to point out a distinction between email as a technology (made up of servers, applications, networks and protocols) and the inbox as a user interface. The concept of an inbox is not going anyway fast, but the role of email as a primary workplace communication medium is under threat. The one saving grace of modern email is interoperability between different email systems (this was not always the case).

Unfortunately while email is a decentralised system, it is not a particularly smart peer-to-peer system. This creates two key issues for email users, which are a source of email fatigue:

  • Duplication of shared information across inboxes.
  • Access to shared information stored in email mailboxes.

Enterprise social software is challenging this paradigm by centralising information where it can be accessed and encourages a culture of access (what we call, “working outloud”). This combats the issue of duplication and access, which has a net impact on email overload. In fact the technology is not really in question, but the main challenge for enterprise social software is generating the internal critical mass to make it a viable alternative collaboration space.

One barrier to adoption where email still trumps is external communication. The good news is that while there is still more work to be done in this area, it is becoming easier to collaborate with external users using these platforms.

This very much mirrors our own experience at Ripple Effect Group. For example, last week only 5% of the emails I received were sent internally. The vast majority of email I receive is generated either by the systems we use or is sent by people outside of our business.

This is only possible because we are long time users of an enterprise wiki and instant messaging. And I know this is better way because each time I have been forced to work without access to these platforms, it has been a painful, time wasting and frustrating experience.

I do not doubt that technology will ultimately shift us to new business structures and this will change the nature of the workplace and employment. But in the meantime, changing how we use email in the workplace is a good, practical starting point.

Do you want to reduce your dependence on email in the workplace? Please talk to us.

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