Why the important stuff isn’t in your inbox any more

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It’s become trendy these days to bemoan email as inadequate and predict its demise. Email has clear limitations but as Kevin Kelly points out in What Technology Wants, technology never dies – it just loses market share.

So as with slower and less synchronous forms of communication such as postal mail, email will always be a valuable messaging system to some people for some things. CEOs may make grand claims about phasing it out but you can be pretty certain that they’ll have a message delivery system for offline users somewhere in the organisation – email by another name.

As we’re seeing with postal mail, email will be augmented and it’s volumes partly reduced by richer forms of media. Most of it will also be irrelevant, sent for recording or regulatory reasons only, just like the mortgage statement or paper bills you receive every month but do nothing with. That’s email’s destiny.

You’re much better able to judge relevancy with if you have more to go on than just a subject line – if you have context. That information is getting to you these days through media which are richer and better curated than email; instant messaging, video conferencing, social networks. This experience is common but it leaves your average enterprise in a quandary because most of these media are regarded with skepticism.

The tide is turning though. Already real‐time chat is accepted by most organisations, even if many limit it to within the enterprise; we see lots of companies who will deploy MS Office Connectivity Services but move to ban Windows Messenger.

Video conferencing or chat is also becoming acceptable. The exception is perhaps video conferencing which is seen as a replacement for the telephone – that seems to miss the fact that it’s a rich media transmission mechanism. Indeed, it’s notable that Apple have recently introduced iMessage and FaceTime functionality to their iOS operating system – regarded by some commentators as an enterprise play. As more users bring iOS devices into the workplace this might also be a back door for social media – though we’re yet to see any kind of uptake.

What is borne out by history is that as users become more comfortable with the media, so they will disclose more about themselves, developing the social aspect. They will concern themselves with presentation more as the communication media become richer. This means the information users choose to communicate will become more in tune with their audience; the audience will have more information by which to differentiate the relevant from the irrelevant.

So the movement will be inexorably towards a more social interaction within and outside the enterprise. Email will still be sent and delivered. You’ll still read it – it just won’t have quite the relevance it does now.

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