The End of Email?

How many emails do you receive at work each day? How many are mass distributions that you don’t need to be copied on? How many are outright spam? Do you waste time reading through long, wordy messages to find the one piece of information (if any!) that you need? Does the sheer volume of email impair your ability to get your job done?

ATOS, a major IT company, has had enough with email. ATOS plans to eradicate all internal email in the next three years . Labeling email as part of the new “information pollution,” ATOS CEO Thierry Breton says, “The volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business.” ATOS has decided that the usefulness of email is outweighed by the amount of time employees spend just reading and replying to emails. Breton even laments the encroachment of email into personal time.

ATOS is not advocating a return to phone calls and interoffice memos. As a leading IT firm – providing IT management for the 2012 London Olympic Games – ATOS is moving into even more innovative ways to communicate and collaborate. According to Holly Smith, an ATOS spokesperson, ATOS implements social/business networking tools such as Office Communicator, which manages online chat, Internet telephoning, video conferencing, file and application sharing; Atos Wiki, to which people can contribute or modify content; Livelink, a document management system; and FISH, an in-house system to share and comment on ideas.

But are the rest of us ready to drop a communication tool that many are just learning to use? Breton points out that “only 11% of 13 to 19 year olds use email to communicate.” And yet there are many 40 years and older workers who are struggling to learn to use email at all. With the majority of the workforce over the age of twenty, is a transition to yet a newer technology realistic?

On the other hand, is the fact that no one has found a way to tame email in the past twenty-five years the very reason we need to move past it?

The use of email does appear to be on the decline. Bob Hallewell, founder of Expert Messaging, believes that email usage will diminish in coming years, although it will not go away. Several Phoenix Tech Pubs customers use internal instant messaging to quickly communicate with their colleagues. We use an internal Wiki to track best practices and ideas.

However, can new communication media solve the problems of email? Instant messages create more interruptions than email. Networking platforms can be addictive time-wasters. Even more importantly, archiving and retrieval of information shared on these media is harder than email.

Also, how many of the problems of email are caused by a lack of email training? For example, many people don’t know how to create folders and subfolders in their email application – every message they have ever received is still in their inbox! If email is such a critical business tool, why don’t managers train their employees to use email effectively? Oh right, because they don’t know how to effectively use email either.

And if there are so many problems with email, why haven’t the email service providers improved the technology to address them? Is email technology just too obsolete to improve? Or has there simply not been enough financial incentive to invest in improved email tools? Perhaps the threat of abandoning email will drive the providers to improve the technology.

Finally, we might assume that technology experts like ATOS and email vendors like Microsoft will lead the way in implementing these new communication paradigms. But perhaps the geeks are overthinking things. Co-Construct, a small company in Virginia,¬† offers software to the construction industry that grabs information from email, text messages, and other digital media, and organizes it by project and then by topics (bids, change orders, selection sheets, expense tracking, milestones, client questions, etc). Builders and clients can communicate collaboratively from within the software. Co-Construct’s customers say the software saves money and their clients love it. Constructech Magazine says¬† the software gives “builders an easy way to manage, track, and organize messages, allowing construction companies to assess information all in one location” and even asks if builders will stop using email entirely in the future.

I think the only assumption we can make is that business communication will be very different in the future. Just five years ago most people had never sent a text message; now it is a common tool for business communications. Who knows what is next?

Andrea is a Senior Technical Writer at Phoenix Technical Publications. Phoenix Tech Pubs has provided complete technical writing and documentation services in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 25 years.