Farewell to e-mail

E-mail's shortcomings are hard to ignore as new collaboration tools take off

Is e-mail going the way of snail mail? Is your inbox maxed out? The answers to those questions might depend on how old you are and how many people share information with you in the course of a day.

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Web 2.0 on the rise

 The North Carolina Division of Child Development, for one, might be ready to show e-mail the door, especially as a tool for sharing information within teams or large groups. The division, part of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), operates a central office, but about half the employees work from home in various parts of the state. Until recently, the department used e-mail to knit together its widely distributed workforce.

But as anyone knows who uses e-mail to coordinate activities and documents for a project, confusion often replaces collaboration and productivity. Enormous e-mail threads accumulate as sender after sender adds bits and pieces of information. Messages containing important information can be difficult to find in overflowing inboxes. And it’s not always easy to tell if everyone on a team has seen or received all the messages.

So the Division of Child Development embarked on a pilot program last year after participating in a Microsoft SharePoint demonstration presented by DHHS. The division was one of two that took part in the pilot program. Users immediately saw the benefits of tracking a project and contributing to documents housed at a central site. In the process, e-mail use declined.

“I would definitely say that e-mail has been reduced…around collaborative efforts,” said Regina Brooks, the division’s business operations manager.

Such stories show that many organizations are taking a step back from e-mail and evaluating other communication options. Some government and industry executives say e-mail has reached its high-water mark, and they forecast an expanding role for Web 2.0 tools such as social networks, collaboration software and Web-based conferencing.

“I believe e-mail has peaked, both with respect to collaborative solutions and across the board,” said Robert Carey, the Navy Department’s chief information officer.

Although Brad Shimmin, principal analyst for collaboration and conferencing at market researcher Current Analysis, said he doubts e-mail will disappear anytime soon, he believes organizations are more open to other options.

“I think e-mail has peaked in terms of our perception of its value,” Shimmin said. “What we are seeing is a newfound understanding that we are not limited to e-mail as a means for communication.”

E-mail’s limitations

So what’s behind the decline of e-mail? For one thing, it tends to fall short as a collaboration tool.

“E-mail is not a great collaboration solution [because] it isn't real-time. It's shotgun-broadcast,” Carey said. “It is time-delayed since it is asynchronous store and forward. The new Web 2.0 solutions present real-time collaboration [and] messaging across many people.”

Carey cited Facebook-type applications, wikis and webinars as examples of Web 2.0 tools more conducive to collaboration. The chat features available on most social-networking sites also allow direct collaboration, he added.

Last year, the Navy’s CIO organization tested the use of wikis for drafting policy and found that the approach worked, Carey said. “We’re now using Intellipedia, a wiki that’s open to the military and intelligence community, to collaborate over policy development,” he added.

Similarly, North Carolina’s pilot program is moving toward expanded use of the new collaboration method. Upon its completion, DHHS decided to make SharePoint available on a departmentwide basis.

The objective is to “spread it out across divisions or sections that have remote staff and have the same need to collaborate on documents and other projects they are working on,” Brooks said.

The move away from e-mail facilitates collaboration and eases demand on information technology resources because fewer messages and their attachments are accumulating in storage.

Brooks said use of SharePoint became a cost-effective measure for the division, which pays the state’s Office of Information Technology Services for e-mail service and storage. By contrast, DHHS owns the SharePoint server, so as the technology reduces e-mail volume and attendant storage needs, it helps lower costs.

“The biggest savings is through using less storage for e-mails, which is where most of our cost for e-mail is generated,” Brooks said.

The use of social networks has a similar effect on IT resources.

“That is one of the benefits of social networks that you don’t hear much about,” Carey said. “Most people tout the convenience and collaboration they afford, but the savings in storage requirements as well as network transaction reduction should be a huge consideration.”

Carey cited the example of a user who e-mails a large document to a working group of 20 people, who then store it in 20 different places. In comparison, with a social network, a large document is stored in one location where the entire workgroup can access it.

A generational shift

Generational differences also challenge e-mail’s traditional role in the enterprise. Young workers who grew up with Web 2.0 tools lack the affinity for e-mail characteristic of workers who came of age two decades ago.

“Our current workforce, consisting largely of baby boomers, has adopted and become very comfortable with e-mail,” Carey said. “However, our new and incoming workforce, consisting of millennials, didn't use e-mail long enough to become completely reliant on it. They grew up on and are more comfortable with collaborative applications such as chat, Facebook and wikis.”

The new generation “is pushing organizations to look at these alternative means of communications more seriously and earlier than…they would have otherwise,” said Jaime Waterfield, unified communications solutions manager at CDW Government.

The new workforce “has an expectation of how they are going to communicate at work,” Waterfield added.

Mike Gotta, a principal analyst at the Burton Group, said e-mail will likely become less prominent over time due to that generational shift.

“There is a reasonable argument that e-mail will age out,” Gotta said, citing the typewriter as an example of that process.

Learning to coexist

The fading of e-mail will likely take many years. In the meantime, it will soldier on at organizations. In fact, many experts predict that the number of active accounts will grow in the next five years in both consumer and corporate settings.

The coexistence of e-mail and collaboration software is the norm at the Defense Information Systems Agency, which uses SharePoint to help manage activities such as Base Realignment and Closure activities. A DISA spokesman said the agency doesn’t consider SharePoint as an alternative to e-mail. But as a workspace enabler, it is tightly linked with Outlook and used in conjunction with e-mail, as it was designed to do.

Gotta said the role of e-mail vis-a-vis other communications tools will shake out in the next decade. He said workloads that are inappropriate for e-mail will slowly shift to other modes of communication. He referred to that process as the right-sizing of e-mail.

Instead of eliminating e-mail, the newer communications approaches could make messaging technology more effective, said Walton Smith, a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton.

The company launched a Web portal called in August 2008. The social-networking tool integrates blogs, wikis, threaded discussions and employee profiles.

For example, an employee looking for information on the company’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command activities doesn’t have to send a mass e-mail to the company’s entire Navy team. Instead, he or she can search the portal to identify key points of contact, expertise and communities related to Spawar activity, then send an e-mail message to three people rather than 3,000. A general, “Do you know?” e-mail therefore becomes more specific, Smith said.

In another trend, vendors are retooling e-mail to keep pace with social media.

Shimmin pointed to Google Wave, which was announced in May and scheduled for release later this year. It incorporates e-mail and Twitter-like live event streaming with other collaboration tools. Meanwhile, TechHit’s Twinbox integrates Twitter into Microsoft Outlook.

By contrast, e-mail operates behind the scenes of many social-media applications. Gotta said sites such as Facebook in essence have an e-mail subsystem. “There’s always a note-passing capability,” he added.

So although e-mail as an independent application might decline in the coming years, the technology’s underlying store-and-forward paradigm is likely to linger.


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