By Marc Wright

Email is the classic example of ‘too much of a good thing’. When it first arrived it delivered speed and convenience at a low cost and soon overtook phone, mail and even talking as the primary communication channel for anyone with an internet connection. But now email has become the archetypal necessary evil: we have too much of it, it never stops and it drives our daily ‘to do’ list.

So when the new social channels started to emerge many saw Yammer, Chatter, Jive and their ilk as an opportunity to ditch the evil email and enter a new age when we would all ‘work out loud’ and communication would be seamless, accessible and effortless. Instead we now have the worst of both worlds: Yammer, Jive, SharePoint Groups and all the other social channels are seen by many as just another form of email that we have to log onto after we have completed our Outlook tasks.

Notifications – those mini-emails from Yammer, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are now creating yet more clutter in our inboxes and driving us all mad. The key problem is that our Inbox is not just a means of communication. It has become our ‘to do list’, our supervisor, our judge and – when we get to the end and the number of ‘unreads’ becomes just about manageable – the source of satisfaction that we have done everything that is expected of us till we log on the next time.

So our inbox has actually come to manage our workflow; what was a great servant has become a poor master. We did not choose this way of working; it has come by default. But the alternative, which is to have the discipline to follow our own time management system is harder. Far easier to let email decide what we should be doing next – rather like the barista in a coffee shop who responds to the orders from the never-ending queue in front of him.

To break the habit of diving into Outlook first thing in the morning was never going to be an easy task. There are evangelists – notably Luis Suarez of IBM and Thierry Bretton the boss of Atos who have set out banish email from their lives. And there are more moderate approaches such as VW banning emails out of working hours. But these attempts are not even starting to gain popular support in corporations who are mainlining email.

Outlook junkies

The worst Outlook junkies tend to be the decision-makers: the 45-65 year olds who make the big budget choices on systems. Many started work pre-email and were the early adopters of a tool that they now see as inextricably woven throughout their working and home activities; they are not going to give it up in a hurry.

Inevitably the providers of social platforms have come to the realisation that if you cannot beat them you had better join them and we are now seeing the early intimations of what is being called ‘smart email’. Social tools like Yammer, Jive and Zimbra are now moving into the inbox to give a single stream for information and collaboration. In its crudest form this means notifications of social posts, but on the horizon are ‘connectors’:  ways of integrating social conversations into the one-to-one world of conventional email.

The Revolution in the Inbox

With these changes coming down the tracks I have written a SMiLE Guide: Smart Email in the Social Age in which I explore this Revolution in the Inbox : particularly Jive with their latest update and IBM’s new offering IBM Verse. We will also look at where Microsoft is heading with O365 and the integration of Yammer into this all-encompassing offering as well as the approach of Zimbra, Google For Work and the promises from the imaginatively named Facebook at Work. The Guide is sponsored by Newsweaver who have a long heritage in the creation, management and measurement of outbound emails.

How tech leaders use email

Here are some tweets describing how the elite of Silicon Valley deal with email:

“Jeff Bezos once told me that he tells everyone that if you email him, you’ll get an answer either within 10 minutes, or never. He’s a funny guy, so this was a joke, but in my experience, only halfway a joke. :)” Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder and Wikia cofounder

 

 

“I’m sure company-internal vs. external email tends to be handled differently but here’s one amusing bit of information my boss at Amazon once told me about Bezos. He said if Jeff forwarded something to him (another email or even a news article) and didn’t add anything else to the message then this meant “I expect you to know about this topic/issue, deal with it as needed, and be prepared to talk about it if I ever ask”. However, if he also included a single “?” at the top of the email, then the rules changed and it meant “I expect you to look into this and send me a reply/update as soon as possible”. I’m sure Jeff managed to triage huge chunks of correspondence using only the ‘forward’ button and the question-mark key.” Ron Brinkmann, Technology Dilettante

 

“When I worked at Google in 2006/2007, Larry and Sergey held a Q&A session, and this exact question was asked of them. One of them answered (I don’t remember which) with the following humorous response (paraphrased): “When I open up my email, I start at the top and work my way down, and go as far as I feel like. Anything I don’t get to will never be read. Some people end up amazed that they get an email response from a founder of Google in just 5 minutes. Others simply get what they expected (no reply).” David Shin, High Frequency Trader

“I met Steve Jobs at a Paris Review party for his sister in the 90’s (Next era). I followed up via email which started a series of occasional exchanges that lasted a few years. He answered every email. Emails I sent during the day would often take many days to get a response, but if I emailed late at night (past midnight) I got an almost instant response. If I was up and would respond back, he would again respond… like modern chat. Once, I asked him about how he had the time and he said that he liked to get some unfiltered feedback and thought it was important to hear what regular people were saying.” Raul Gutierrez, CEO of Tinybop Inc.