Email’s Mid-Life Crisis: Can We Tame the Killer App? Do We Really Want To?

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Did we really receive or send 19,200 email messages last year? Well, we'll let you tally up your own inbox. Then again, that will only add time to the two hours a day that training firm CohesiveKnowledge says we already devote to fielding an average of 41 daily incoming missives. The inbox bloat problem is longstanding, of course, and an issue that the press has found sexy since at least the late 90s. In 2006, however, email has matured and is markedly less appealing. Recent court cases hinged on email evidence, and corporate compliance and regulatory requirements have forced companies to face the issue of message storage. The enterprise does take email more seriously, but in simply archiving old messages, are companies really facing both the depth of the problem and the scale of the opportunities in email?

"The number of emails in an organization—especially the size of those emails—are growing," says Steve King, president and CEO of email archive service Zantaz. Way beyond spam and virus security, the issue now involves what we use email for and the content management issues it raises for both individuals and companies. "It has started to incorporate more of the business-to-business processes," says Mark Overington, VP of marketing at Authentica, a rights management solution for email. He also sees more sensitive financial transaction and purchasing occurring in a channel designed for passing casual notes. The implications of making email a catchall, killer app, can even be profound on the corporate structure. "People are making decisions that once were the role of their leaders," according to Ian Black, managing director of Aungate, a division of enterprise search giant Autonomy. His company finds employees now making procurement decisions, even placing orders with suppliers entirely outside the usual channels. "With the businesses we work with, it is absolutely startling," he says.

Email is the killer app because of its ubiquity and simplicity, so employees rely on it for tasks the inbox was never designed to handle like collaboration (document pass-alongs), ecommerce transactions (billing and confirmations), and rapid-fire IM-like exchanges. This doesn't account for the 23% of our inboxes that messaging research firm the Radicati Group found are filled with personal, not business, material. On top of that, turns out we're all in denial about our own bad habits, since 75% say that co-workers over-use the deadly "reply to all" button, but only 14% admit to doing so themselves (CohesiveKnowledge). More than half of organizations place inbox limits on workers, but this brute-force approach frustrates users and may actually diminish productivity and even erase some valuable intellectual property. Now that we're more than a decade into the widespread use of email, the platform may not be in crisis as much as awash in mid-life ennui, suffering from middle-age spread and lacking the motivation to fix itself. "You want to put it on a fitness program and right-size it to the new millennium," says Deborah Baron, director of corporate development at Zantaz.

We either don't want to face up to the email crisis or we simply have resigned ourselves to unwieldy inboxes. If anything, the preoccupation with archiving to satisfy compliance issues and maintain security draws attention away from the quiet productivity loss from inefficient email. "Most companies don't have a sense of urgency about it," says Christina Cavanagh, author of Managing Your Emails and a University of Toronto instructor who researches email and productivity in the workplace. "It is the killer app that's killing our productivity," she argues, because our own over-use of email is what clogs inboxes and forces us to mass delete and ignore messages. Her study found that only 17% of users say they respond to messages the same day they are received, and 60% of our inbox goes unread. "I calculated that approximately 12% of corporate payroll gets sucked out by useless email," says Cavanagh. And companies are missing the boat (or bloat), adds Sarah Radicati, president and CEO of the Radicati Group. "We talk to companies, and their concerns aren't on usability, but in security. They miss the opportunity. There is a lot more sophisticated email uses that should be shared with users."

Can't We Offload This Stuff?
The ideal answer to email overload may be offloading: taking tasks like collaboration and document distribution out of the world of attachments and into more efficient and traceable channels, like corporate portals. Austin-based Permeo, a remote access software company, says it improved its inbox situation with a solution from iCentera, which uses email to push colleagues and partners to easily made intranets and extranets where documents and discussions reside. "You don't want to email large documents all the time, says Laurie Coffin, director of marketing and communications, Permeo; they bump against internal inbox limits or similar filters at partner companies.

"We use email as a way to announce changes on a portal so we lessen the importance of using email for everything," says iCentera CEO Craig Nelson. In typical email exchanges, a document sharing a single message and attachment sent to a small ring of people can spawn scores of replies. iCentera's solution lets any sender generate a portal on the fly from within their Outlook client to place documents or start message exchanges. Email alerts containing a portal link and log-in credentials, instead of an attachment, automatically go to recipients. The receiver now has the option to opt in to content rather than have huge, unwelcome attachments pushed on them.

Taking mission-critical tasks out of the email loop "replaced round-robin emails" says Kristi Thiele, solutions engineer at Permeo, but also had deeper, unexpected effects. When sales teams come and go, their email archives typically get wiped out, and along with them any history of customer relationships. By placing those exchanges on a portal, new employees can review relationship histories. Thiele says that offloading business conversations to a portal helps answer what Aungate's Ian Black cites as a critical problem, employees using the personal email channel to circumvent or create their own business practices with clients. With a portal, "You can have templates and set ways of communicating," says Thiele. "You can have a business where everyone is doing things the same way."

Well, yes, in an ideal world. Permeo is a small, young, and tech-savvy company that can train and enforce the portal regimen with all new employees from day one. While many vendors bring to market IM, portal, and collaborative solutions designed specifically to offload these tasks from email, most email experts say that email is so personal, so simple, and fundamental a tool now that changing habits across a large company is costly and nigh impossible. "People are less comfortable in collaborative work environments or using Web portals," says Cavanagh. "We're not there yet."

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