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The future of email: Collaboration experts on new social media tools

Enterprise collaboration experts give their opinion on the future of email and email management in the face of new social media tools.

Email is one technology that spurs a great deal of discussion in the world of content management. The ubiquitous communication technology has inspired many discussions about how it will hold up against evolving enterprise collaboration initiatives and new social media tools. Still, most organizations use email and among workers it enjoys a comfortable familiarity that's hard to foster with newer collaborative applications. touched base with three experts to discuss the future of email, email management and its implications in the workplace. We spoke with Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research Inc. a Black Diamond, Wash.-based consultancy that specializes in Web, collaboration and social media platforms; Richard Harbridge, a senior SharePoint architect and evangelist at Portal Solutions LLC, a Rockville, Md.-based consultancy; and Kashyap Kompella, an analyst specializing in enterprise collaboration and social media trends at Real Story Group in Olney, Md.

Though Osterman, Harbridge and Kompella agree that any predictions of email's coming doom are more than a little farfetched, they offer unique perspectives on the technology's changing relationship with competing programs and enterprise collaboration platforms. The following are some excerpts from our conversations, which have been edited for length and clarity.

In today's environment of increasing enterprise social media use for collaboration, many people have said that email is dead or must die. Is this true?

Michael OstermanMichael Osterman

Michael Osterman: We don't see email use dying at all. We've done numerous surveys, and we have seen, actually, email use increasing over time. People are actually using it more than they were even last year.

I think the role of email is changing. I think what we'll see is certainly more use of social media communication. And email is going to maintain its traditional role of communication but then also become a portal for all of those other types of information. [You're] going to see more tight integration between email and social media so that if somebody communicates with me on LinkedIn and it comes into my email, I can communicate with them natively through my email client.

Richard HarbridgeRichard Harbridge

Richard Harbridge: I think, first of all, the death of email is greatly exaggerated. The reality is it's a technology medium that supports a certain type of conversation. It's actually really good for one-on-one conversation, where it's audited and tracked. And it's rich conversation.

With social media, it can be difficult to attach images and attach documents and create a workspace for a discussion. [If anything], something that supports the reduction in email more than social media would be the usage of extranets. [And] when you're communicating inside the company, there's more use of intranet tools or collaboration tools.

Kashyap KompellaKashyap Kompella

Kashyap Kompella: Email is not going away. The reports of its demise are vastly exaggerated. We may not often realize, but email is like the Swiss Army knife: a multipurpose tool. We use it for communication, collaboration, as a personal file repository, as a calendaring tool, as a marketing tool, as a customer support tool and in so many other ways. Many things that email does, [social networks are] not mature enough [to do]. They're not scalable enough, they're not simple enough.

Will there be a standard replacement for email?

Osterman: I think in certain applications there will be. If you look at enterprise social media tools, there are things that you can do better in those collaboration tools than you can in email. So, I think there will be specialized tools that will replace some of what we're doing in email today, but I think the majority of email communication is going to remain intact.

Harbridge: I think we're starting to see that now. The latest technology in email is Google. It's becoming a little bit more of a rapid-response engine, so what we have now is this idea that you're working directly from the context of the email.

That's very similar to some of the social concepts. Email is becoming like a document capture device, similar to faxes and things like that. [But] there are so many methods [through which] we're sharing material now beyond email, so it's not as important as a capture device as it historically has been.

Kompella: When people talk about social media encasing email, they're mostly talking about [social media] streams. [While] the social network activity-stream model of collaboration seems fun and has its appeal, structuring all the vast mass of messages into an orderly fashion and separating the noise from the signals is not a trivial task.

The social software vendors are aware of this and hence you see their efforts to offer better message filters, better categorization methods, etc. But when you do all that, it sort of resembles your email software. Social software wants to be email when it grows up. [There] is a French company, Logica [recently acquired by CGI Group Inc.], which said it'll transition to zero email within the company -- they'll switch to using social networks -- in three years. Well, even then they'll be relying on email to communicate with customers and partners outside the company.

Should organizations set up email management initiatives to improve communication effectiveness? What should they look like?

Osterman: Yeah, I definitely think they should. I think basically what you need to do is match the appropriateness of the tool to the task. For example, if people are working on a document, then it makes sense maybe to use some sort of a social media tool where you get real-time communications about a document. [I] think what organizations need to do is look at how their users communicate with one another, particularly those who are working from home one or two days a week, and then use all of the tools available that best meet the task at hand.

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Harbridge: Oh, absolutely. [The right] way of approaching email, enhancing the way we use email and responding to email in the enterprise is picking the workloads that can enforce a way or methodology of executing that.

[An example] could be [help desk] ticket support. [Help desks] get these requests and typically the responses that come, either automated or even from an individual, have a very specific structure to them because there's a benefit to having that structure: The organization is always consistent. So, that's where you'll see that really shine and have strong benefit.

Kompella: No. The beauty of email is that it's very simple, very intuitive. You really don't need to have an email management initiative. So much bad press from email comes from our experience with spam email. [But] that's mostly on the consumer email side. Enterprises have got a pretty good handle on spam filtering. [The major] complaint that [employees] have is that they're constantly looking at email. … Academic research has shown that if companies release emails at scheduled times instead of all through the day, that'll help employees focus better.

Should these initiatives be part of wider campaigns involving other enterprise collaboration efforts, and what messages do employees need to hear as these changes take place?

Osterman: I definitely think [employees] should be part of the overall discussion about how organizations go to the cloud, how they implement telework initiatives and so forth. And yeah, definitely users need to be involved. Especially in an era of [bring your own device, or BYOD], where people are using their own smartphones and their own applications, you need to make users part of the discussion.

Harbridge: Yes, I definitely think it should be part of a wider collaboration effort. [One collaboration trend is in] the filing process: taking attachments or emails and putting them into a structure that's more searchable, more achievable, with record retention rules. That can be shared with teams more easily than email typically can.

Kompella: You don't have to look at email all the time. The problem is not the tool but the way we use the tool. We can put it to good use or bad use, so we just need to get a bit smarter about how we use email.

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