Computer engineer Ray Tomlinson may have had no inkling what he was about to unleash when, in 1971, he sent the first email across ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. It didn’t take long to catch on.
Email opened an essential communication channel between work teams, companies and customers. Almost 50 years later, email dominates much of our daily work life. A 2017 study by the Radicati Group pegged email volume at 269 billion messages — per day. It’s expected to top 319 billion a day by 2021. We use it constantly, but that doesn’t mean we love it.
Sometimes, it seems like the flow of incoming messages never stops. And it’s not just the volume of email we contend with daily. It’s the way each incoming message interrupts our workflow, the way data becomes isolated in individual email accounts, and how threads of conversation become bloated missives full of requotes that require time to decipher who said what and where matters stand. Workstyles have become more collaborative and group-oriented. Many attempts have been made to overhaul email to make it more efficient, but the basic model and its associated shortcomings have remained largely unchanged.
Collaborative work products have been around for a while (remember Lotus Notes?), but none could loosen the grip that email had on business users’ time and attention. They seemed to be more efficient, but always seemed a little clunky or overengineered for the purpose. Email was easier to use, so the motivation to switch to something different just wasn’t there.
Now that may be changing. Collaborative software that includes layers of functionality and organization modeled on social networks are enabling teams to communicate and collaborate more effectively and boost productivity. These collaboration platforms feel more natural and fit workflows better. They actually seem to speed up team communication and make it easier to contribute to discussions.
A recent paper from DXC Technology entitled, “Deploying collaboration platforms intelligently” notes that social platforms such as Facebook have made many people comfortable with community-oriented ways of communicating and coordinating action — just like teams in a business setting. In the report, workplace experts Philip Joslin and Richard Owens note: “Facebook has such a firm place in our lives that we take it for granted. Now, Facebook has created Workplace, a platform for employees to communicate, share information and collaborate.”
Group communication is far easier to navigate in threaded discussions that are a natural part of collaborative platforms. Information becomes easier to search for and find because it’s centralized, not isolated in a team member’s in-box. Workflows and assignments can be automated to help move projects along. And, allowing employees to join groups outside their specific area allows them to contribute what they’ve learned to other teams who may have similar questions.
In short, social collaboration platforms give the right people access to the right information they need. Organizing projects around social collaboration platforms eliminates a lot of steps, such as emailing coworkers, knocking on doors and leaving voicemails every time some component of a project is completed.
Joslin and Owen point out the fact that even though Facebook and other social tools have made us more comfortable with collaboration, breaking employees of their email habit won’t happen automatically or organically. Larger companies can benefit by using adoption services, a process by which business units and employees are taken through a program that helps them understand all the benefits of a social collaboration platform, and how it applies to their daily work. They also recommend the use of community management tools. Just like a marketing dashboard that measures campaign metrics, community management tools help team leaders assess which groups are using collaborative tools most effectively and who may need help.
Like vinyl records and AM radio, email will never die. But there’s a good chance that today’s socially oriented collaborative software will make it less necessary to keep our eyes glued to the inbox to stay on top of work and be more productive. Few tears will be shed if that happens.