17/01/2012

By Luis Suarez, Social Computing Evangelist, IBM

Four years ago, when I announced I was giving up email for good, if people had asked me about the future I would have said email will die a painful, slow death as the Social Web and Enterprise Social Software tools take the corporate world by storm.

Yet the past few years have shown me that we are not there just yet. Email is not dead, and it won’t be for a while. What we have seen is that email is morphing, and moving away, from being the King of Communication (with the issues we are all familiar with, such as junk mail, finding missing content, losing email archives, mail quotas exceeded, attachments, Reply All etc.) into a powerful social messaging and notification system of content that’s stored elsewhere - on wikis, blogs, social networks or any other platform on which your colleagues might be collaborating and communicating.

Back in February 2008, and throughout the year after I started the initiative of living in “A World Without Email“, it never ceased to amaze me how few people questioned whether email was the king of corporate communication. It was a given. No-one even dared to bring it up as a topic, and if you did people would think you were crazy! (Like I was told several times!)

How could we survive within the corporate environment not using work email to stay in touch, to keep in the know, to communicate, collaborate and share our knowledge across, to store our own content, etc? How could we do things without email? There can’t be any other way out there! Fast forward three years into 2011, and the number of articles, blog posts and whatever other publications trying to defend email from not falling off its corporate pedestal has been an amazing experience to watch!

Thirteen years ago, back in 1999, web consultant Bill French coined the phrase, “Email is where knowledge goes to die” - that phrase is still is as relevant as ever.

During the course of 2011 we have seen that I am no longer alone on this crazy endeavour of wanting to ditch the bulk of corporate email for good. I am not saying that we should be kissing goodbye to work email altogether, since I still see a couple of good use cases for it, but I am glad that people are acknowledging that there are better tools out there to help knowledge workers become more effective and efficient in sharing their knowledge and helping their organisations understand key concepts like openness, publicy or transparency, as well as being more networked, interconnected, nimble, trustworthy, committed and even more motivated.

For me, The Brave Ones are the folks who, over the course of 2011, have been challenging the status quo of corporate email. I’d like to start with “We Quit Email“; a fascinating initiative launched in The Netherlands by Kim Spinder, which is getting some lovely traction with plenty of advocates. Check out their Facebook Page for more details on how they are getting along.

We are also seeing some large cloud email providers like Cisco moving away from providing that type of online service.

We have also seen how incredibly talented and smart folks like Chris Anderson (entrepreneur and creator of the TED conferences) are finding email rather cumbersome and challenging to deal with. Chris decided to challenge the status quo by introducing the Email Charter, an initiative to help folks still relying heavily on email to “save” their own inboxes. This initiative is worthwhile checking out if you are still planning to continue making full use of email.

And if there is someone out there who has made quite a difference as well as regards to this whole initiative of abandoning email that would be my good friend Paul Lancaster, in the UK, who had the absolutely brilliant and unique idea of setting up “No Email Day” on 11 November 2011. The next “No Email Day” will be 12 December 2012, if you’d like to join in.

But the really exciting thing from 2011 is that businesses and organisations are starting to consider, slowly, but steadily and progressively, the transition away from corporate email into social networking tools.

Thus over the course of the last year we have seen how companies like Intel, Deloitte, Lanvin, Klick, Gottabemobile, or even Volkswagen (with a rather good press coverage, by the way) have already started to make their move into a corporate environment where email is no longer as relevant as it used to be.

Whoah! Who would have thought it, right? These companies are surely leading the way, but if there is one other business out there that has been both the traditional and social media darling with regards to their quest of ditching corporate email in its entirety over the course of three years that would be the French IT firm Atos Origin, who earlier on this year made a very clear statement, a new goal altogether: stop using email for internal interactions in three years.

So, back to my question of where do I see email heading in the future? For the first time in decades, email is starting to feel threatened by the complex collaborative, knowledge-sharing, social networking environment and, as such, it’s starting to help redefine itself into the next wave of email. Funny enough, Google Wave was a pretty good representation of that reincarnation, but it’s too bad that Wave never delivered, for various reasons.

I feel that email will successfully reinvent itself before we ditch it completely within the corporate world. It’s morphing already. If you look into what a good number of email system vendors are doing at the moment, they are not sitting back waiting for email to die. They, too, see the need to reinvent what they have been providing for a good number of years.

It’s a big, fat cash cow that no-one wants to see going away too soon. And that’s probably why we are seeing lots of interesting articles (like this one) covering its evolution from what I call a pure content repository tool, to a social messaging and notification system of content that’s stored elsewhere, which is just too funny, and perhaps ironic, too!, because that was exactly the main purpose behind email when it was first invented over 40 years ago! What comes around, goes around, I guess...

This is an edited excerpt from an article that originally appeared on Luis’ blog, Elsua.net.

You can follow Luis on Twitter @elsua

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