In the last 20 or so years we have largely adopted e-mail as a good productivity and communication tool for businesses. This has led to many positive changes in our work habits, but as a side effect it has become a big pain for everyone whose work is dictated daily by other people.
Some historical reflection...
postal services got better and transport routes quicker, mail proliferated and quickly became an indispensable tool for written business communication. The invention of the telephone was another major milestone in the evolution of human communication. No longer did you have to wait several days for a message, but everyone was able to reach to someone else in real time regardless of their physical location. But it was the advent of computers and the internet that had the biggest impact on people and business communication. The first e-mail messages were exchanged in the academic sphere, but businesses quickly realized the potential of almost instantaneous ( and FREE ) written communication. By the year 1996 the amount of sent e-mail messages already surpassed snail mail with 200 billion sent messages in the US alone. And now here comes the real problem, today there are more than 500 trillion e-mail messages sent every single year, most of which is unsolicited messages (SPAM).
Why e-mail is outdated
When engineers developed the e-mail protocol, the majority of written communication was still processed via snail mail, so this was the experience they had and they used snail mail as a base for e-mail. This is the reason we use concepts like "subject", "carbon copy", "reply", "attachment" or the worst of them all - "blind carbon copy"! Years ago we loved the fact that we can recreate a snail mail in electronic form and send it for free, but I believe that in the meantime humanity evolved and standard mail concept are a thing relegated to the past. Today more than 10% of written communication is processed by Facebook and this is a clear sign of things to come. Facebook messages don't have subjects or CC fields, they don't resend the same message to several people, they don't produce long reply stacks. It is true that they are not as feature reach as traditional e-mail, but do we really care? I believe it is much more important to deliver a message quickly than to have tons of features which confuse people, make communication slower and overload servers.
So what is next?
I see a wave coming with new productivity tools like Yammer, Salesforce Chatter and our own Beezway, which will change the way we communicate. Below is a list of 10 features or differences between e-mail and a modern approach to business communication:
- For starters, I came to the concussion that the "subject" field is dead, actually it has been dead for a while, we just took it for granted because we were so used to it. Just remember how many mails you get every day without a real subject or with a subject which says just "hi" or "something" or it has the whole message in the subject.
- All we want to communicate is a clear message, most of the time we don't have time for long stories, so we try to keep communication short and clear. Twitter is an extreme example, where you have to summarize a message in just 140 characters. Of course sometimes we want to write a long letter or give exact instructions, but this is an exception to the rule. Most of the messages we send every day are short and our input window should be smaller than the average e-mail window.
- In modern communication we don't send messages any more, with e-mail we usually send a copy of the message to several people and save a copy for ourselves. This is wasteful thinking, and when there was little e-mail communication it made sense, today it doesn't any longer. Today we share messages with other people, this means that we create a message in the cloud which can be red by other people.
- One of the biggest problems with the e-mail specification are attachments, those are copies of files we already have on our computers which are sent embedded inside the copy of the message. This creates copies over copies of files, which take up storage and bandwidth and which makes message delivery slow. With modern cloud storage services attachments have become useless, all I need is a link to a file stored in the cloud.
- Some people use e-mail as a task management tool and I know it can work fairly well. Unfortunately e-mail is natively not connected with any productivity software and it can not contain additional meta data to allow it to track time or assign tasks. So why couldn't we treat messages as tasks, most of business e-mail communication is task oriented anyway.
- E-mail is also widely used to send ical event invitations from calendar software, which can be imported to other calendar software. How 'nineties is that and most of the time it doesn't work. I believe that event management should be a native feature of any modern communication platform.
- Because there were no social networks at the time e-mail was invented, there was also no other way to connect with people or organizations using computers. New communication platforms are changing this and the e-mail address as such has becoming obsolete. I know, Facebook also has it's own internal e-mail system, so you do get a @facebook.com e-mail address and you can send messages to those mails, but this has been done only for backward compatibility. This means that the e-mail notation is being used less and less, today you are sharing messages with someone not with an e-mail address.
- A different technological approach can create a spam-free ecosystem where the concept of mass mailing is outdated. Companies are already looking to alternative routes to reach customers and are founding out that mass e-mailing is not bringing the desired results any more.
Here is a free tip: invest more time in social engagement!
- There are also replies to messages, which usually create a new message altogether which contains the whole conversation over and over and over again. Replies are a thing of the past, today we need to communicate, share thoughts, comment, participate to a conversation.
- And to finish off, we should also consider the fact that because we are always on-line, we are also able to communicate in real time - chat. Doing so using e-mail is extremely time consuming as e-mail has never been envisioned for real time chat ( we had IRC for that :) ). A modern messaging platform should allow people to collaborate in real time and to delver a message when someone is not live or doesn't want to be disturbed. In a way this is what Skype or Facebook are already doing.
We have been playing with this concept for the past few weeks and I believe we are able to create a unique messaging platform which can substitute e-mail communication inside and out of any organization. I am also convinced that a new approach can increase productivity and save many work-hours per week on communication alone. What do you think?