E-mail and I were born at roughly the same time, and like me, it’s beginning to show its age.
ARPANET contractor Ray Tomlinson is credited with sending the first mail – to himself – around 1971. He can’t even remember what it said. “Most likely the first message was QWERTYIOP or something similar,” he’s been quoted as saying.
Tomlinson’s innovation was to allow mail to be sent to users of computers on the ARPANET; he also chose the ‘@’ sign. Forty-six years later, we’re still @ it, but some bad habits, especially in organisations, seem to have crept in along the way.
Such as checking your mail. Too often.
Or using your inbox as a planning tool.
Or using e-mail as a substitute for the telephone.
And don’t even mention the tyranny of the out-of-office reply.
By some estimates, we spend a quarter of our day dealing with e-mail, and what with all this time spent on it, it still sort of works, such as when the boss sends out a company-wide announcement, or you need to communicate with clients.
E-mail is indiscriminate. Because it’s the de facto means of communication, everything is included, and it’s only after a healthy dose of deletions that you can really get down to work. Not to say a WhatsApp group is any better; there always seems to be at least one loudmouth.
But e-mail doesn’t work very well when you have a large number of people attempting to get something done, and this is where the tools known as workstream collaboration (WSC) come in. Here, communication is based around a task, which cuts the noise to a steady hum of productivity.
According to Gartner, this market is going to achieve a compound annual growth rate of 96%, reaching about $4 931 billion by 2021, up from about $171 million as of last year.
According to the research house, WSC creates a ‘persistent, shared, conversational workspace that assists teams with initiating, organising and completing work’. All this is achieved through messaging, alerts, activity streams and content sharing, among other things.
It’s not going away
But that still doesn’t mean that e-mail is dead, even if many WSC vendors will have you believe it.
E-mail, says Gartner, still represents the standard – though inefficient – channel for fulfilling work.
“Even if WCS tools are widely adopted, Gartner believes e-mail will continue to be a mission-critical application.”
Muggie van Staden, the MD of open source solutions provider Obsidian Systems, says everyone is getting too much e-mail, and there are more effective ways of communicating. “There’s going to be a movement soon where people are going to stop replying to e-mails, and say, ‘If you’re not connected with me on other platforms, don’t expect a reply’.”
Van Staden’s company is a solutions partner for Atlassian, which makes collaboration tools for, among others, software developers.
Since its beginnings in 2001, Lisa Schaffer, Obsidian Systems’ principal Atlassian consultant, says Atlassian has ‘eaten its own dogfood’, and they ‘understood the pains customers would have gone through’. These customers are most of the big banks and insurance companies, as well as business, finance and marketing teams. Even stockbrokers are all using the software, says Schaffer.
Companies that use Atlassian tools also end up sending fewer e-mails, she says. “You’re all working in the same space, chatting about the same things. With (another Atlassian tool) HipChat, you can quickly spin up a room and talk about the day-to-day operational stuff without having to send an e-mail.”
Earlier this year, Atlassian bought Trello, a project management app, for $425 million.
Schaffer says when she’s training people to use Atlassian, she suggests they use Jira, because there’s an audit trail.
“For every conversation you have around a piece of work, it will be kept within that piece of work.” This means people aren’t searching their e-mail inbox, trying to fi gure out where the mail trail started.
“If somebody changed the subject header, all of a sudden, that mail no longer belongs to that group of mails.”
Schaffer says e-mail isn’t dead, “but our clients are moving away from e-mail as a form of collaboration. They’re using tools to collaborate.”
E-mail, too, is useful for external communication, such as when a customer wants information about a product, or when you’re dealing with suppliers.
Before sending a mail, Schaffer says she’ll first go to a company’s website to see if she can find the information she’s looking for.
“I don’t think South Africa has caught on to the fact that your website is now your reception area. And if more people spent some money and time getting their websites up and running, that would reduce the amount of e-mails and phone calls they’d get.
“We’re into an age of self-service, but some people are in denial.” Schaffer says companies are realising that they can’t take a whole year to deliver value.
“My customers want value now. We live in a society of instant gratification. This is why agile is such an important part of software development because you can deliver a portion of value to your customers. They may not have the entire Ferrari, but at least they can look at the body.”
Nick Bell, the CEO of Decision Inc, a management consultancy, says increasing clients’ productivity has been a big part of their business this year.
Organisations create a lot of communication, says Bell, and if they’re able to simplify it using technology, “it generally makes it a thousand times easier for the person on the other side who has to engage the process?”
Even going on holiday becomes stressful because you know that you’re going to come back to 500 messages.
There’s also the assumption that everything needs to be done quicker, because ‘we’re a lot more impatient than we were historically’.
“Instant access and speed have become a very big part of everybody’s conversation about their business.”
Bell says Decision Inc still uses e-mail, and it’s still a large part of client communication. Some teams use Slack, and when the company moves to new offices in January, they’ll be using Skype for Business. It also makes use of WhatsApp groups when running large projects with clients, because this means more people can get visibility into the job at hand.
If you’re fortunate, the nature of work is also becoming more collaborative.
“In the old days, everyone was locked in their office with the door closed. Now we want teams near one another, so rather than the traditional inefficiency of sending an e-mail and waiting for a response, you can collaborate and communicate with the person and get the answer immediately.”
Bell says many people are overwhelmed by the number or e-mails they get every day.
“Even going on holiday becomes stressful because you know that you’re going to come back to 500 messages.
“We’ve got to get out of that particular way of working.”
By Matthew Burbige for Brainstorm