Email: Middle aged and still going strong

Email celebrated its 41st birthday recently, yet despite its age new research shows that its use is unlikely to significantly wane for at least the next decade.

Email celebrated its 41st birthday a couple of months ago and amazingly how we use it remains largely unchanged. It still is basically a messaging system, pure and simple, devoid of feelings (unlike talking). What has changed is the volume, accessibility and how we have bent this simple messaging system to be a tool by which to manage, collaborate, negotiate, conduct illicit love affairs etc. For how much longer will email be around as the backbone of business communications?

Not surprisingly, with the emergence and exponential growth of social technologies many have already written email off. Indeed, how many other technological inventions have remained for forty plus years either unchanged or still in demand? PCs as we know them have been transformed. The last typewriter rolled of the production lines earlier this month and fax machines are becoming a rarity. Over the last six months our research firm has been reviewing the use of email compared to social technologies such as intranets, wikis and LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Our research focuses on their use for all forms of communications and information sharing, excluding marketing. We found that the volume and use of email and social technologies is rising, see below.

Change in use of social media, IM and email. Photo: Monica Seeley / Mesmo

The increase in email traffic is similar to other research firms finding. For instance Radicati, which estimates that business users world-wide now receive on average 110 emails per day and are predicting a 25 per cent growth year on year. We find users in Europe receive nearer 70 emails a day which is equivalent to one new email every nine minutes.

There are now more than 225 million twitter accounts and one billion-plus Facebook users. The application of these social technologies for business is rising but not as fast as email. However, many organisations have merely overlaid the use of social technologies on top of email with scant guidance on which to use when for best effect.

The recent UK figures for sick leave showed that days off per person per year had fallen, the incidences of stress and muscular skeletal related illnesses have risen. Faced with communications coming at you from multiple channels, information overload is becoming a significant challenge for most business people. For example, through which channel does one share critical competitor information, the latest sales data etc, the intranet/email/instant messaging? To which do you respond to first on a busy day?

Interestingly, only 25 per cent of those we surveyed have ever received any email best practice training and even fewer, 18 per cent, have been educated about using social technologies for business, see below.

Proportion of organisations provided with best practice on using modern communications technologies. Photo: Monica Seeley / Mesmo

The use of social technologies and instant messaging implies a more open and shared information culture. They compel individuals to take responsibility for their own knowledge management rather than rely on others throwing information at them, it is about pull rather than push. For many this is a culture change. As business remains tough, many will continue to see information as power and resist any move to social technologies.

Email and social technologies have their strengths and weaknesses and it is unlikely that any business will be able to survive by depending solely on one or the other. Instead our research shows that organisations will need to have a 'polymedial' e-communications infrastructure which takes the best of breed from each technology, from email to wiki. The medium chosen must be matched to the purpose and reason for the communications for example, it is for public or private consumption, urgent or not urgent, one-to-one or broadcast.

Email is still the most widely used and accepted of business communications channels and according to our findings looks set to remain with us for at least another decade. However, there is huge scope to reduce the volume of email and at the same time improve communications and knowledge management. To do poses several challenges for CIOs.

  • Which channels are best suited to your business and its culture and modus opeandi?
  • What acceptable user policy and protocols do you need for a 'polymedial' e-communications strategy?
  • Do your business users have an appropriate level of IT Fitness to deploy the technologies?
  • How will the culture change be managed (from push to pull)?
  • How will you educate people to make optimum use of the available range of media?

Unless challenges such as these are addressed most businesses will continue to depend on email for all the wrong reasons and purposes, and investments in social technologies will never be truly optimised.

This data is an extract from our white paper being released in January 2013.


Dr Monica Seeley is an international expert on email management and runs the Mesmo Consultancy. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University, London, and has just written her third book, Brilliant Email, published by Pearson.

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