The Email Resurgence

Email as a Collaboration ToolOk, that title is not exactly honest — because email never went anywhere. It certainly didn’t die, as was predicted by every social technology vendor ever. Funny enough, one of the biggest perpetrators of this fallacy was Yammer — and then they got acquired by one of the largest purveyors of email technology, Microsoft. Even so, some of their anti-email messaging continued for a while after the acquisition, but went silent around the same time that Office 365 Groups came onto the scene.

For decades now, email has been one of the most prevalent and successful collaboration tools on the market. For many years, it was Exchange versus Lotus Notes….and Microsoft crushed it. But then suddenly social technologies were “hip” and email was under attack, and everyone was claiming that the technology was somehow on its way out. Since 2010, the total volume of e-mail has dropped anywhere from 10 percent (comScore) to 18 percent (McKinsey). And yet over the same period, more than 1 billion new email addresses have been created, with 3-times the number of consumer email accounts than business accounts.

One MAJOR shift in thinking — at least from my perspective — is that we no longer argue either/or, but consider everything to be tools within the collaboration tool belt. Even within the world of email, we all have multiple accounts, with both personal and (sometimes multiple) business accounts. We use email addresses as a secure way to identify and authenticate our users (increasingly through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn). Most systems and tools we interact with send acknowledgements and digital confirmations (via 2-factor authentication for security reasons) via email every time we interact.

I guess you could say that email has become a dinosaur, of sorts. The latest tools are more direct, more concentrated, and more efficient. Historically, email was a workload in and of itself. You set aside time in your day to compose and read messages. But the nature of these newer technologies is that they can be tailored to fit any time, any device, depending on your needs. Many interactions begin in one format — a text – and then quickly move to other tools. Same conversation, different mediums. In fact, that describes most of my daily interactions.

While email usage may not be going away any time soon, the ways in which we use email have certainly changed — and I do believe that email as our primary collaboration tool is being displaced by more flexible and dynamic technology. Back in 2011, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “High school kids don’t use email, they use SMS a lot. People want lighter weight things like SMS and IM to message each other.” And that’s certainly true. A new generation of information workers does not open their email account by default at the start of their day. They may still have an account, but their preference is for the text message, direct message via Facebook or Twitter, or a number of other synchronous communication tools that are entering the market.

Email is a powerful tool that helps us communicate point-to-point with virtually anyone on the planet. A McKinsey study from 2012 found that over 25% of the average business user’s time was spent processing email. On average, users check email from 5-20 times per day. And let us not forget that it was one of the original “killer apps” that made the Internet grow so rapidly — and it remains the common method for online communication. But collaboration today is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication, with text-based conversations and threaded discussions, content creation and sharing, and real-time video and co-editing capabilities — and the asynchronous, time-delayed responses of an email conversation are not sufficient for every type of interaction.

Some companies are actively looking at ways they can decrease the use of email in the work environment, recognizing that many of the newer collaboration platforms are better suited for collaboration around tasks, projects, product and service development, and other forms of internal communication. While these companies may still use email for notifications and other communication needs, the majority of “conversation” is moving away from the email inbox and into social networking, messaging, and document collaboration solutions as offered by platforms such as SharePoint and the rapidly growing Office 365.

Of course, email still has its advantages: they are easy to track, to store, and to re-share. Some of the new text and instant messaging tools feel ephemeral—you read them, and then Poof! they’re gone (hello SnapChat-generation). Some organizations struggle to understand how to capture these exchanges for compliance and security purposes, and have justified fears that intellectual property could be going out the door. Email still feels more tangible, searchable, and easier to protect than any of these glorified chat tools.

There is no right or wrong level of email usage. Even Microsoft has shown conflicting strategies, having invested billions in social technologies — only to seemingly reverse direction in support of new email-based capabilities. Instead, the product teams in Redmond have decided to support multiple, sometimes overlapping technologies with the idea that different organizations have different collaboration needs — and to provide platforms to support and enable these different “modalities” of collaboration. The creation of Office 365 Groups is a clear sign of Microsoft’s intention of continuing down their innovation path, adding more (often overlapping) collaboration features and tools to the mix, but within an architectural-model that allows companies to more easily switch them on and off within their tenant, and allowing them to better manage the user experiences for their organizations.

The future of collaboration for Microsoft is about letting the customer decide which tools best fit their end user and customer needs. As more and more of our workloads and information sharing move to the cloud, and as our modes of customer, partner, and team collaboration move toward socially-based communication tools, we will undoubtedly see email usage further decline — and new technologies popping up that may leverage email in new ways that could see it spring back to life once again.

While email may no longer be “the” collaboration tool of choice, I really do believe it will long remain part of the overall collaborative solution for most organizations. Based on what we see today, there will be much more intelligence and automation behind email than what we’ve seen in the past. I can see it moving in the direction of Twitter, where its as much a part of the underlying communication fabric, powering other features, as it is a stand-alone solution. Email will remain a core workload within even this evolving world view of collaboration, because it still has the power to connect to a person, a message, or an idea just about anywhere in the world.

For some reason, my mind jumps to that classic Monty Python scene in the Holy Grail with the guy yelling “Bring out your dead!” and the guy who claims “I’m not dead yet. I feel fine. I think I’ll go for a walk.” And then he gets clubbed on the head. Not that it fits this post exactly, but it’s what comes to mind. And It’s hilarious. But I digress…

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Apps & Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and fractional-CMO for revealit.io, tyGraph, and Extranet User Manager.