Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Alternative to email

by Penny Edwards

If I created a tag cloud of the presentations and ensuing discussions from last week’s Unicom Web 2.0 conference, the ‘email‘ and ‘twitter‘tags would dwarf all others.  Not surprising really, since email is formost businesses a pivotal communication channel, which is systemically(over) used across all organisational levels.  Twitter, on the otherhand, is a fresh technology offering some genuine improvements tocommunications and networking behind the firewall.

But, as Clay Shirky pointed out in his recent interview with Dave Cushman,stuff doesn’t get socially interesting until it gets technologicallyboring.  And that’s precisely the situation we face with email andTwitter.

It’s annoyingly effortless to inundate people with blanket emails,cc’d information, repeated queries or requests for information.  Thecycle of overuse is perpetuated because it’s too easy to hit ‘send’without considering other options for engaging people or the impact ofsending the email.  Of course, existing ‘options’ may vary depending onthe technologies available in the organisation and the extent to whichpeople are actually using them.  Like Twitter, for example, which isstill being tested as part of the business social media landscape anduse cases being established (see these posts by Lee Bryant, Chris Brogan and Jay Cross).

So in that context, Luis Suarez shared with us at the conference some insight into ‘giving-up’ work email based on his own efforts in that regard, and his use of alternative technologies to help him work more effectively.

Since ‘giving up’ email, Luis explained that if people want tocommunicate with him, they now do so through any and every mechanismother than email.  It’s up to the individual to find the medium whichbest suits the task at hand.  And for Luis, his kit is now replete with’elective’ tools – meaning he can dip in and out of conversations atthe best time.  He constantly updates his ‘status’ (using twitter) sothat everybody’s aware when he’s available for calls, for IM exchanges,or to meet up.  This means he doesn’t waste anytime in his inbox, noris he bothered by IM or other alerts when he’s trying to work.  It alsomeans that people’s expectations are well-managed, for example inrespect of Luis’s availability and response times.  Amongst otherthings, this approach makes for less interruptions and greaterproductivity/effectiveness.

The clear message here is that email is just one tool, and it’s areally bad one for connecting people and finding out what’s intheir heads!   But people use it like it’s the only tool.  They closedown many opportunities for improvement simply because they don’t takethe time to think and unlearn some bad behaviour.  Since his abstentionfrom email, Luis reports that getting the job done is all about hisnetwork and ideas.  He knows what he wants to tune into, and uses hiscommunity (and social tools) to help him filter the masses ofinformation, so he receives only the choice cuts and doesn’t waste timeon bogged down in the inbox.

Luis’s story provides a great example of how a twittering-styletechnology can be used in the flow of daily work providing tangiblebenefits to the individual (status updates signaling work levels oravailability) and others (who’s doing what and when).  It’s this needfor greater transparency that Jay Cross referred to as a key use case for Twitter to improve learning in the enterprise:

When I draw a blueprint of an ideal enterprise learningenvironment, it always includes an expertise location function. Yousee, lots of corporate learning comes from asking other people how todo things. The trouble is, we ask the person closest to us rather thansomeone likely to have the right answer. Getting blank looks instead ofviable answers or, worst yet, getting the wrong answer, is a primemeans of frittering away time on the job.  A corporate [“twitter”]network could overcome some of these difficulties. For one thing,Twitter grows a self-organizing social network. Nothing to fill out.When a question is thrown out to the network, people with time andenergy can volunteer at answer. No more inundating the expert.”

It may yet take a little time for this to become the reality ofmainstream business communication and the networking landscape.  However,that shouldn’t stop people reflecting on the effectiveness andefficiency of their present processes, behaviour and use oftechnology.  And for those who do make some simple shifts toward a moreinformed use of technology to better support business practice, they canexpect to be at the front of the disruptive change (i.e. innovation) inthe way business gets done!

2 Responses to Alternative to email

  1. By MACHETE! on October 8, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    So do away with email and communicate via the likes of Twitter? hmm
    Why don’t we just use Koko?
    Too much internet thinking can be a bad thing.

  2. By Dheeraj Juneja on October 4, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    The post is a bit old but still very valid, the issues with emails are still prevailing.
    Email overload (and the fact that they are not organized the way we would want them to be is an culprit to this whole issue, people email the information and then leave it to the recipients calibre to handle the information, organize it for later retrieval etc.
    Generally, people organize their emails in a such a way that emails related to a particular project/activity are pushed into one folder, certain people do that by sender etc.
    What if one can actually control the way the recipients arrange this information and that this can be standardized throughout the organization … do you see how beneficial this will become?
    You might want to try out: TaskTrek: A communication and document management system blended into one to bring everyone part of the team at one level. It has some nifty choice of tools incorporated where people can even share information with clients and give them access to the team (in a very controlled way).
    TaskTrek gives their users a feel like they are using something very close to Outlook, however what goes behind the scene is something incredibly useful. It runs out of an engine which groups all actions like: New messages, Files, Questions and the responses into relative sections. Imagine even after an year you will have all the related information all on one screen.