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Email as the Problem or Email as the Solution?

Posted by on February 21, 2011

Email is getting quite a bad reputation, in fact Atos Origin (a large consulting and outsourcing company) is pledging to be a zero email company within three years! Bertrand Duperrin wrote up a great post on this examining whether or not this realistic.  This post however is not about whether or not we could or should live without email, or what we can replace email.  Instead I think it’s worth exploring why email is being seen as one of the problems leading to enterprise collaboration instead of being seen as a possible solution to enterprise collaboration.  This by the way, came after another great chat with Gil Yehuda.

Email as it stands is not the greatest collaboration tool, in fact email is becoming more and more like a messaging tool, you send out an email and a few minutes later you get one right back.  It makes it hard to ever leave the email screen.  Sharing files amongst groups is also not very efficient and overall collaboration functionality is just limited.  As a result, vendors are developing new tools and collaboration suites that make effective collaboration possible…but is this the best approach?  We all use email quite frequently on a daily basis so why isn’t it possible to build collaboration functionality directly into email solutions?

What if when sending and receiving emails we had the ability to access shared document spaces, activity streams, project groups, and other data that we needed right from the email interface (such as Yahoo, Gmail, or Outlook)?  I understand the attractiveness of building out new tools and platforms, however I think we may be under-utilizing assets that we already have and those are a broadly adopted, intuitive, and widely understood platform to share information (email).  There should be a way to extend email solutions to do more.  Most enterprise collaboration suites are looking to move the user away from their email platforms and into a new interface (which may or may not have the functionality to pull in email) which of course makes it difficult for adoption, deployment, training, defining use cases, and a host of other things.  I understand the difficulty and the necessity in being able to manage information, however email (and email addresses) seem to be the greatest identifier of people online that we have thus far.  So why not leverage that into something more?  I’m not saying I’m right but I do believe that email providers have a strong opportunity to move into enterprise collaboration.

I should mentioned however, that I have done some research on a few companies that have been able to execute enterprise collaboration amazingly well with these new tools (and also aggregated many more stories and examples of enterprise 2.0), but is this the best way?  Is it the only way?

What do you think?  Can we build on top of email for enterprise collaboration or is this just a lost cause?

  • Hi Jacob,

    I could not agree with you more. Although collaborating via email does have real issues, it does not mean that it is not still a valuable tool for today’s business world. Perhaps one day it will be redundant but it’s a tool which we should still be working with, not against. That’s why you will be pleased to hear we have already built in integration into our collaboration platform, 4Projects.

    We integrate in a number of ways:

    1) You have the option of receiving alerts via email for new items within the collaboration space for your attention and then you can directly access the item via a link in the email.

    2) You can capture all communications, even emails in your collaboration space. So for example, if you are communicating via email with an external person whom you don’t want to have within the collaboration space for some reason (perhaps it’s a one off piece of work), you can still capture the email and any attachments by CC’ing your collaboration space. This way you don’t have to save the email, it’s already captured for record in 4Projects.

    3) Using the same integration you can actually also email items into 4Projects too. For example, you are out and about, take some pictures on your phone and you can then email them directly into your collaboration space on 4Projects. Or if someone emails you a file, you don’t have to save it on your hard drive then upload it – you can simply email it into the system then delete your email.

    4) The final way we integrate is that you can start and respond to any of our 4Projects communication tools via email. We offer communication tools such as discussion boards, notifications, task allocation etc within our collaboration application. As well as accessing these directly within the system, you can also simply use email. And the great thing is you don’t need to save these emails – they are being captured within the collaboration platform itself.

    This is not the end for us either – we plan more integration with email platforms in an aim to make using our collaboration spaces flexible and user friendly as possible. We have to accept that everyone works differently. Some people like to be logged into the space at all times and access the tools directly using their collaboration inbox. Others still like to use good old emails. It’s about making the interface as accessible as possible. Any barriers are just counterproductive to true collaboration.

    If you are interested – just get in touch and we can give you a drive around our system.

  • “What if when sending and receiving emails we had the ability to access shared document spaces, activity streams, project groups, and other data that we needed right from the email interface”

    That’s exactly what we do at Relenta. I would take it a step further: not just email, but social networking messages as well. They all should become a part of each contact’s activity stream:

    • I think the challenge is that many vendors are developing aggregators that don’t provide context to content, not only that but there is a focus of moving people AWAY from something that they are already using instead of working with it.

      Thx for the comment as usual

  • really good question, which i believe can lead us to several different answers or even left without any of them

  • email is just another tool. And the answer is yes, email still and will always serve as another means of communication. There are functions within each organization that don’t require the use of collaborative technologies that support group-thinking. They just need a way to get a 141-character message delivered to a colleague. email still serves that purpose.

    Organizational collaboration is a process and no tool determines its success or failure. One of the most widely installed collaboration toolset is Microsoft’s SharePoint and many of its installation’s turn into just another file server. But that doesn’t mean the collaboration strategy has failed.

    I do believe that our dependency on email will wane; as I hope so do the spammers, just as we have seen a reduction in voice-2-voice phone usage. That doesn’t mean phones will someday be obsolete.

    When designing a collaboration effort that supports the business strategy, we have to look at specific functional needs and then make a tool-set decision.

    Jacob, great post on a subject that debated more than collaboration ROI.

    • You make a great point with the voice-2-voice phone usage example, it;s actually why I think smart phones are so popular. We have traditionally started with a device designed for communication and instead turned it into a device that allows for 24/7 connectivity with apps!

      thanks for the comment!

  • About 10 years ago I was also working on a collaboration system that would replace email. Today I’ve matured and recognize that email often is evil, but email is also the only infrastructure that has adopted the a real standard and leave choice of client and backend to the individual or organization without compromising on the collaboration. For every new system to happen I will always depend on others to use the system too. This will never happen.

    So I’m more aligned with your thought, how can email (especially the uniform infrastructure) be used more efficient en effective. This will be a challenge, but I believe it will be along the lines of email becoming the notification system and not the carrier of information anymore.


    • I think email is only evil is we let it take over our lives. We live in a “real-time” world now where people expect responses very quickly, the problem is that quick responses are then also met with quick responses and email turns into a glorified chat messaging program.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • I think email like the desk phone will still be around because its comfortable to people. It’s by far not the best way to collaborate and as you have pointed out in your other posts it’s more of a distraction than anything else. I have a Microsoft background so I would tell you all about the benefits of SharePoint and how you can collaborate online, at the same time and reach out to people via IM or voice if you integrate OCS into your solution. I’m sure a Google person could say similar things about their products.

    If you ask an Exchange server admin, they will tell you that email is for a message and not for sending documents around the office. That’s what SharePoint is for. Tell the team to subscribe to the collaboration site and SharePoint will tell you when an update or new doc has been uploaded.

    I think the evolution will take place in training. There are plenty of tools out there already but the end user needs to be retrained. For example, end users think that SharePoint is a file server. It could be but that would be a a waste of money and resources. They need to be trained on how to use the tools to achieve success. A book that really opened my eyes to this is “Seamless Teamwork” by Michael Sampson {I don’t know him or work for him}. He points out in a story fashion on how you should use the tools you have – this case Exchange and SharePoint – and gives you the plus and minus of doing so.

    • Email at this point is definitely a universal system that virtually everyone is familiar with to some extent. You make a great point re: training however some of the companies I have been interviewing mentioned that some of the platforms are so intuitive that training is not required. Intuit is an example with their Brainstorm platform. The corporate culture will also dictate the best steps needed to ensure successful adoption. I just added the book you recommended to my Amazon cart, thank you!


      • Thanks Jacob, I’ll take a closer look at Brainstorm. From the screen shots it looks like they ae adding in a crowd sourcing element which would produce some great results. Someone can always invent a better wheel but I guess my point was that companies should look at what software they already have and make sure they are using it to its fullest instead of leaving the best features on the shelf.

  • I think whe should foget the tool and focus of the goal. Email is a way for someone to send a signal to one or many people, get answers from these people and even discuss with these people. Experience tells us that it’s a good tool in some cases but a terrible one for other (discussions for instance).

    The problem is that we need to be able to interact in many ways, with many people and on many stimulus (ie : what causes the signal : need to share, to inform, to react to another signal caught elsewhere…) and that the email tool as we know it is being used for purposes it has been designed for.

    Now imagine an emailing solution that is designed to handle many kinds of signals, many kinds of interactions, make things actionable in the flow of work in a single interface and you have the solution. Call it email, social signal solution, social messaging…it does not matter.

    So email is not dead…it only have to be redesigned to be relevant in today’s context. As a matter of fact the need for sending, receiving and interacting on signals won’t disappear so we only need tools that makes it easy and effortless in our work context.

    So, to answer your question, the answer may be both new solutions or a redesigned email solution. It’s only a matter of wording.

    Let me tell you about two things I saw at Lotusphere last month. Even if IBM has their own social business solution (Connections) they also work on improving their email one because they see it at a new abstraction level that will gather all kind of signals, either from social solutions, email, repositories, traditional biz applications.

    Two example among all :
    – a project from their labs aiming at bulding one-click communities from emails discussions on a project and gives you a global view either you’re in the community on in your Notes client.
    – the next version of Notes that inspires a lot from their “Project Vulcan”.

    So email can be the future or a part of it. The point is we should avoid tool focused discussions and pay attention to what managing flows and taking actions on them means for today’s workers.

    • Absolutely agree with you there Bertrand, the goal is always the focus. There does need to be a solution to handle multiple signals but I don’t think that’s difficult to do. The challenge is continuously adding new signals and getting people to use the systems. I also don’t think email is dead even though Atos Origin is seeking to purge themselves from using email within 3 years. I really wish I would have been at Lotusphere, it sounded like a great event. I was actually not familiar with the two things you mentioned, do you by any chance have links to either of those two projects?

      While I agree that the tool focused discussions play second fiddle to flows,actions, adoption discussions I also think that the tools play an integral part in success. From the interviews I have been conducting with organizations, many of them have stated that the intuitiveness and flexibility of various platforms has a “make it or break it” affect.

      Thanks for the comment Bertrand

  • Anonymous

    I wish someone would invent a telephone so we could do away with email. That would be rad!

  • Guest

    Take a look at CloudPointe – – which does exactly what you are describing, and lets you email links to documents in a secure workspace.