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.

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The result of this success? "Nobody can live without it for more than two minutes," says Sara Radicati, president and CEO of The Radicati Group.

From Unix mail (b. 1972), IBM PROFS (b. 1981) and DEC All-In-1 (b. 1982) to email clients, integrated email (think Lotus Notes) and Web-based mail to today's cloud-based options, email has evolved because we have needed it.

Bertolini is a big fan of email -- since the public sector is still heavily paper-based, email still counts as a big technological step forward. "We can chase new technologies, but I need something that's trusted and used by the masses. Even though there are people clamoring for newer ways to communicate, email is our main form of communication," he says.

Why We Hate Email

Unfortunately, email's positives -- its utility and ubiquity -- have become its negatives as well.

Consider this complaint: "It doesn't matter if the message comes from a spammer hawking Viagra, your wife asking you to pick up some wine, your boss telling the company that Monday is a holiday, or a client asking for a meeting at his office at 11 a.m. In today's inboxes, all email messages are equal," journalist Om Malik wrote six years ago, in 2007. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse.

The problem, says Koplowitz, is that "we use email for things it wasn't designed to do." Hooked on email, users default to it for scheduling, workflow planning, resource management, archiving, document management, project management and even knowledge management. Often, ideas that should be shared widely are locked up in an email chain among a narrow list of recipients. "The things it does poorly have become problematic," Koplowitz sums up.

Over the years, developers have tried to break through users' dependence on email with software that's more sophisticated and better suited to certain enterprise tasks -- often with only limited success.

Knowledge management systems, touted in the 1990s as the next big thing, failed to catch on, while collaboration systems such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint have been variously successful; the inclusion of Chatter into the Salesforce.com system serves specific needs of salespeople.

But typically these systems have failed to become as widespread as email because, while they offered a solution that may indeed have been superior to email, they did so only for a narrow population of users.

"There's a high correlation in the success of these tools when they're aligned with recognizable business value," says Koplowitz. Unfortunately, he adds, there's frequently an organizational mismatch. The tools that work for one department (e.g., sales) may not work for another (e.g., customer service).

And when a new communication tool like Yammer or Chatter does take hold throughout the enterprise, what happens? Users route their notifications to the one place they're most likely to see them first -- the omnipresent email inbox.

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