The end of email?

Email as we know it is not getting things done in business: it often takes a flurry of late night messages to get results from your co-workers.  As you consider moving to the cloud, why replicate email inefficiencies from Lotus Notes® or Microsoft Outlook® mail to a cloud provider?  By "starving" your inbox through the adoption of managed communications you can kill two birds with one stone.  This article presents a path to escape "emhell".

Email is Not Getting Things Done

The heart of most business processes and team collaboration is a series of work request transactions and the means to keep track of their progress (or lack thereof). Simplicity and ubiquity make email an acceptable tool to make requests. But email is not adequate for tracking the dialog that follows. Email does not provide clear means to:

  • Formalize an agreement by the recipient of a request to perform
  • Negotiate the priority or date of completion of a request
  • Track which party has the ball for the next action
  • Expose dependencies (dependent tasks)
  • Share work-in-progress beyond the immediate participants
  • Capture a historical record of the dialog in the context of the request and the project to which the request relates
  • Establish credibility and therefore trust of both requester and performer based on previous performance

The technical reason is simple: email does not provide a structured repository and workflow features. Email is therefore woefully inadequate as a tool for handling business processes. Most knowledge workers intuitively know this, facing daily onslaughts of emails, irrelevant cc-ed messages, lengthy reply-to threads and finally late-night Blackberry messages as the deadline is nearing.

It does not have to be this way.

Starve Your Inbox

Let's look at a successful sales rep. At most stages of a sales cycle, she needs to coordinate with a variety of individuals within her company: engineers to answer technical questions from the client, procurement people to fine tune contracts, accounting, delivery managers, senior management etc. She may even have to coordinate with third parties, such as resellers, shippers, add-on components purchased from suppliers, etc.

A flurry of emails, most at risk of becoming the proverbial messages-in-a-bottle unless she follows up rigorously. And a single breakdown in communications may delay – or compromise the deal. Clearly, email is an inadequate tool for managing this work substituting a low quantity of results-based communications with a high quantity of inefficient messages

The answer is to move all those disjointed communications out of the traditional email system.

One alternate approach is to use project management software such as Microsoft Project or cloud-based equivalent solutions. These tools track task assignments, due dates and dependencies, but they are fundamentally single-user applications that do not capture the dialog between the parties regarding negotiation of delivery commitments, changes in status during delivery, and explicit completion of the request. And because these tools require a heavy investment in learning new skills and methods they are best left to project management professionals handling complex tasks, such as building a new hospital wing or managing an ERP installation.

Another approach is to use custom-built software, such as a Lotus Notes application, or a Force.com version thereof, that enforces a predetermined workflow process. Such an approach works well, tends to be simple to use, but is only appropriate for repeatable business processes – when the workflow is well known, does not change often, and involves the same series of steps and actors. As such these tools are best used for a yearly contract renewal or provisioning of new customers.

From Talk to Action

Despite our collective understanding that email is flawed as a workflow management tool, we are firmly entrenched in its use. What we need is a generic solution that mirrors the simplicity and flexibility of email but adds better workflow tracking features. Knowledge workers will need to be incented out of email rather than forced out. Adoption of alternate tools must be based on getting better performance from co-workers, not being told to use yet another new software system.

Requests may still initiate out of email, but the following conversation is managed in a shared on-line space accessible to all, including third parties.

Performers negotiate and make explicit delivery commitments that reinforce productive behavior and focus on results. Tracking the conversation from request through to delivery moves things along, from talk to action. And as trust builds between actors (requesters and performers), loose ends become infrequent, moods improve and email inboxes thin out.

The principles of managing work requests called“commitment based management” are 50 years old, fine-tuned by social scientists such as Fernando Flores and much written academic journals. Previous attempts to automate these principles, however, failed to translate into workable software, despite valiant efforts from Action Technologies, Elf Technologies and others.

Startup 4 Spires may have finally gotten the implementation right. Cloud-based from day one, not overly bound to the excesses of academia, and much more important, deeply focused on simplicity. The key asset of 4 Spires may be their long history at Apple where ease of use trumps complexity, essential to entice hardened email addicts to a new way of working.

The End of Email?

We see a glimpse of the future of corporate email by looking at the younger generation of home users: Facebook, Tweet/texting and less and less Google email in that order.

Business emails may dissolve similarly into three entities:

  1. Commitment-based messaging such as that provided by 4 Spires to handle business processes and task-based collaboration.
  2. Instant messaging (chat, SMS, private Tweet) for time-sensitive notifications.
  3. Cloud-based email for one-to-one conversations, casual discussions and whatever materials blur the line between the private and public life of a worker.

At the end, cost reduction will drive the end of email:

  • High licensing and administrative cost of private email systems (Lotus Notes, Outlook and their respective server infrastructure);
  • High administrative cost of protection from viruses, spam and phishing;
  • Trailing support of many organizations for personal communication devices into the workplace (iPhone, iPad, SMS) leads to compliance liability;
  • Increased stress of workers unable to handle their inbox – magnified by round-the-clock Blackberry accessibility.
  • Inefficiency of email as a tool to get actions from requests – and therefore a flawed means of achieving measurable business results.
Karen Thurman