Email collaboration is broken, still to this date a lot of companies base their online digital collaborations on email. Typically for external collaborations, but sometimes even for internal ones. Even if it’s not THE technology sponsored for that end it coexists with a number of email alternatives in the organization, and it usually works as the fallback enterprise collaboration technology.
The good things about email
While a lot of people have been prophesying it’s death the truth is that email has some very good points going for it. It definitely has some advantages, such as:
- It’s simple and widely adopted. It’s a very basic paradigm based on the notion of sending, replying and forwarding messages. Additionally it’s among the most widely adopted technologies of the internet. Everyone has an email address. So there are network effects at work here, an example of a technology whose value increases with it’s rate of adoption, and in this case almost every internet user has adopted so go figure it’s value.
- It’s reliable and relatively inexpensive. Email messages arrive regardless of the distance involved, and setting up a mail server is a very documented procedure. There are several open source, and off the shelf alternatives, both on premises, and on the cloud.
- It’s an open garden. Provided you have someone’s email address you can message with him, you don´t have to provide further personal information, there are no registrations involved, no setups, no hassles. While there´s a dark side to this, for beginners and spreading adoption is great.
- It enables work/life balanced time management. In terms of managing expectations for turn around times common network etiquette allows you to wait a few hours, or even days before replying an email. It’s not real time. Plus you can turn auto respond for vacations. Point being that from a work/life balance and time management perspective it allows for a much needed wiggle room to put work stuff on hold.
What’s broken about email collaboration?
Among email shortcomings when it comes to enterprise collaboration are:
- SPAM. The same open garden quality mentioned above enables strangers to contact you for whatever reason, such as trying to sell you something. It’s like a cognitive tax you have to pay to sort through all the messages you get to filter and categorize. It’s such an issue that a whole industry of spam filters was born to attempt to fix this problem, but at it’s core is still present. Anyone can pass along your email address to another stranger allowing them to contact you without your consent.
- Email is really a bad fit for conversation type of interactions. Particularly among several people. Before you know it you have tens of unread emails, some of them which are one liners, with “Me too” responses and it can take really a long time before you figure out where’s the substance, or agreements that were reached as part of the exchange. It’s just not a good medium for conversations, and that sucks because team collaboration is to a good extent a ongoing conversation.
- You don’t have confirmation of delivery and read from the other part. Unless the recipient is kind enough to reply with some form of acknowledgment message, the sender does not know whether the message has been read or if has fallen through the cracks of spam. Sometimes in corporate scenarios it’s not just a nice to have feature, but an audit level required by the business process.
- It really is horrible for team collaborations and document collaborations. For instance if several people have to collaborate on document, it’s normal for everyone to send their version of the modified document, sometimes including previous work from someone else, but sometimes not. Leading to a number of email threads all with attached versions of the document in question. It can quickly become an nightmare to determine what’s the latest version, or what are the differences between these versions to consolidate everyone’s work.
- Turn around time is awful for remote teams. It’s not real time, or close to. In some contexts, specifically for remote teams that are not in a call conference that requires constant interactions, but they are working on the same thing. It’s good to be able to exchange perspectives, and shoot quick questions and get a yes or no answer within minutes, in “close to real time’ time frames.
- No support for complex types. Everything is a message. Why typing content is important you may ask. Well, different types of content involve different presentations, and enable different behaviors, and actions. Different types enable different life cycles. For events you need a reminder and will probably want to see it in a calendar. For tasks you will want to see who it is assigned to, it’s due date, and will probably need to be able to mark them as completed. For purchase orders you will want to approve them or reject them, etc. A lot of vendors have implemented applications attempting to attach, or meta morph an email message into something else, and had to cope with the fact that at it’s core that remains an email message which you can reply and forward.
- The inbox as a sink for everything. The email inbox as the sink where all content flows no matter it’s nature can be a problem. Even if you try to have different email accounts for different purposes, you can only separate things so far. In most companies you will only get one email account, which will act as an inbox of all work related communications. Jokes from your workmates, with me too one liners, with important client exchanges are all in the same place. If the amount of emails arriving is high, it is a matter of time before you miss an important message. Because the platform does not make it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, to separate the signal from the noise.
What’s next for enterprise collaboration? There has to be a better way
Well collaboration in the workplace is changing. A number of new consumer technologies have appeared over the past years which have generated different use patterns. While email is not dead yet, young generations are less ready to write page long emails and more prone to have spontaneous chat interactions. It’s the facebook, whatsapp & snapchat generation.
There’s a new wave of business applications that attempt to address this challenge by leveraging a conversation centric paradigm for collaborations in the workplace. Among them applications such as HipChat, and Slack.
We are building an email alternative of our own design. It’s called Kezmo, and it’s designed to achieve the best of both worlds. Conversation based (near real time) interactions while enabling good expectation management of turn around times. For instance providing feedback on whether or not a message has been delivered and read. Allowing users to structure content with different types, enabling different displays and behaviors for them.