Software

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.

About

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.

13 comments
Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

higher priority to deal with first and respond to. The problem with a lot of the social media stuff is you lose way too much of the day in having the systems scream for your attention all the time.

monica
monica

Hi wizard57m Thanks for the input about sending IM as SMS. I am not a true geek (more of a people, process and culture person) as you have realised. So technical know how is always welcome. Best wishes for 2013.

monica
monica

Hi Charles, The sick leave data is interesting (at least to me) because stress is one of the top ten causes of absenteeism. Information overload and RSI in turn are two of the major causes of stress. With email and social media on the increase it is my experience that first, many people are drowning in information (well at least data) and need help to prioritise. Second, we spend more and more time computer dealing with all this stuff and hence the increased risk and incidences of RSI. As to the white paper - well yes, it was a plug for it! Will make sure my next column is plug free. Best wishes for 2013.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Just an ad for an upcoming white paper. We'll have forgotten about this by the time the white paper is released. And what's with the bit about sick days and muscle disorders.

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

As an employee in an IT intensive company, I never use IM - it only works if the other participants are available, which is an identical situation to the requirements of a phone conversation. I vastly prefer talking on the phone to typing a message so I never use IM in business and only very rarely socially. As for social media, the less contact I have with it, the better; it's so full of utter garbage and triviality that it takes a lot of searching to extricate the wheat from the chaff. As for 'push' v 'pull', I can email a group with a request if I want to pull information, so email can be used for 'push' or 'pull'. So my conclusion is that the only communication tools I need (or can see other business users needing) are telephone and email. IM and Social Media IMHO have no place in business other that to give the impression that a business is 'trendy' or 'uses the latest technology', regardless of how inappropriate these systems are for business use.

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

there are times when I'm at my computer, but my cellphone is located somewhere else. I can open say AIM, and for the recipient put in the appropriate phone number, preceded with a plus sign (+) and off it goes. Way back in the day when IM was the "fad", you had to include the network that the recipient was on, such as +55555555555@uscellular.net instead of just the phone number. Yeah, I know...geeky. Did I mention at one time I could do this from plain old DOS? Hehe...that was a LONG time ago, though I've been known to boot my old Pentium 166 up into plain DOS even now.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

but if the only reason for the article is to advertise, well, I can get that on late night TV. Why plug a white paper that isn't going to be available for several weeks yet? By the time it's released, no one is going to remember this article. If you wait until it's released, the source document will be available if anyone wants to check the statistics and methodology.

monica
monica

Hi JohnOfStony Thanks for your comments. Part of me agrees with all you say and indeed I am reviewing my own use of social media for 2013. But part of me says I need to try all these things as part of my role as a consultant. However the only ones which work for me are probably Twitter and LinkedIn. Have had a 3/4 instances when they have yielded positive results. Would email do the same - probably yes. Just would have taken more time. Interestingly some people (eg Journalists) expect to communicate only by Twitter or LinkedIn and just ignore email. Best wishes for 2013.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Good for sending code, or avoiding trying to understand heavy accents.

monica
monica

The reason for writing is to share my thinking. The plug for the white paper was to give the article credibility in terms of saying there is a foundation to my thinking.

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

I've been fortunate in never encountering heavy accents in business but you've got a very valid point in favour of IM there. As for sending code, I use email.

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

but it is still quite handy! You can even use most IM clients, such as AIM, Yahoo Messenger, etc, to send SMS messages to cellphones. That was the only method I had for years since I never owned a cellphone til about 5 years ago.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I guess credibility is my point. Your 'foundation' isn't yet available. I'm certainly not saying you made up your statistics, but how does citing an inaccessible document provide any credibility? Thanks for your responses.

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