Why the enterprise can't shake its email addiction

Forget new (and better) technologies -- email is as entrenched in the business world as it's ever been. Here's why we can't break free.

Atos CEO Thierry Breton caught a lot of flak last year when he announced he wanted his employees to give up email, but he may have been onto something.

Kids these days don't use email -- digital market research company comScore found that use of Web-based email dropped 31% among 12- to 17-year-olds and 34% among 18- to 24-year-olds in the period between December 2010 and December 2011.

And consumers in general are also off email. The Radicati Group, which tracks use of email and other messaging media, projects the number of consumer emails will decrease by 3% to 4% each year between 2012 and 2016 (see chart, below right).

Then again, there was a reason Breton came in for so much derision: Enterprise email isn't going anywhere. Or, more precisely, enterprise email usage isn't going anywhere but up. Radicati is projecting the number of business emails to increase by 13% every single year between now and 2016.

For businesspeople, that means more time scrolling through the inbox (not only on PCs and laptops but now on tablets and smartphones) clicking past newsletters, social media notifications and spam in search of the messages they truly need to do their jobs, and then later filing, archiving and retrieving those messages.

For IT, that means more complaints from users about storage limits being too low (especially when Google lets them keep everything), as well as worries about security, archiving, retention, e-discovery, deletion and syncing mail between mobile devices. And then there's the cost: In 2010, Gartner estimated that the various costs tied to email add up to $192 per user per year.

Why do we subject ourselves to this madness? Because for all its aggravations, email works. "It's still an efficient way of communicating, almost in real time," says Phil Bertolini, CIO of Michigan's Oakland County, who's responsible for 10,000 email boxes.

"It does what it's designed to do quite well, which is allow us to securely communicate on a one-to-one or one-to-few basis," says Rob Koplowitz, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Simply put, we may hate email, but we can't work without it. But CIOs and messaging experts agree that something must change that if enterprise email volume is going to boom the way Radicati's numbers indicate. Email is going to have to get more sophisticated and, at the same time, easier to use. And the people doing the using, who often make life harder for themselves, need to evolve, too.

Why We Love Email

We love email because it's useful and ubiquitous. It keeps us connected and updated without requiring sender and recipients to be online at the same time, thanks to its asynchronous nature. Everyone doing business today can reasonably be expected to have an email address, whereas only some people use alternative tools like chat, videoconferencing or SMS texting.

Beyond that, email creates a de facto audit trail with a record of who sent what to whom when. And, barring space limitations, that trail is readily available on one's computer.

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