Rumors of the Death Of Email Is Greatly Exaggerated

November 29, 2011

Company wants to eliminate all internal emails , also Slashdot discussion

Interesting to see a company trying to ban emails entirely, at least internally. Good luck with that one.

I had my first email address in 1984, on a local newspaper's BBS called Startext. I have maintained some form of email address since then, although for the following 8 years or so I had virtually no one to email. As much as email can be a royal pain sometimes, it remains the best non-proprietary asynchronous communication medium there is.

During the 10 months we worked on Persuasion in 1998, my team was in Texas and the principal developer in New York. He didn't have email (that I recall), but we were able to work together remotely via phones and by trading source code via a removable hard drive being Fedex'd every two days. Even during the early days of our Deltagraph development most of the discussions were via phone or by traveling to California for meetings. Eventually we got were able to start communicating via emails at some point which certainly aiding in getting Deltagraph 1.0 done before the publisher ran out of money.

Compared to that remote work is easy as pie today.

Of course over the years email has become somewhat terrible since spam emails became more common than anything useful. The flip-side to any open standard with generally zero cost is anyone can send an email to anyone whenever they want to. Calling people with robot dialers used to cost more money as well but with internet calling even doing this long distance can wind up being virtually free, assuming you skirt the No-Call list in the US. I bet if teleporting were possible and free, people would be teleporting to your dinner tablet to sell you things in person.

Basically any free service that can be used to make a buck will wind up the same.

The article points to young people as no longer using email as a major contributing reason, but I think that is rather poorly chosen. If I were a college student email would be pointless to me too, as I would value short quick conversations and be able to communicate synchronously since my schedule would be generally flexible. Instant messaging technologies clearly dominate that requirement. If I need something more asynchronous, I would (and do) use Facebook or Google+. I might even use something like Evite to organize get-togethers or parties.

That's all fine, but none of these work well in a business environment. As a programmer, the last thing I want is an instant message or phone call or even an in-person discussion I need to answer immediately. In order to actually do any work, I need asynchronous messaging. I need to manage when I can answer something. If I am discussing something with a coworker, instant messaging would be great, but only if I can control when it do it. Email is perfect since I get to answer when I want to and I get a transcript of what was discussed which I can find later. I don't have to be rude and ignore someone who has no idea if I am busy or not.

Another reason for email is legal, which is both good and bad. Email is easy to track and log, and can usually be used in court. Texting, instant messaging (unless you have a corporate system with logging), Facebook posts and online forums are public and generally not trusted as a paper trail. Using a public system to discuss internal information may even be illegal. Of course a company is free to install their own alternative communications systems but the end result winds up looking a lot like email anyway.

Emails can and do go wild. My sister is a VP at IBM and spends long hours keeping up with email to the point of ignoring most of it. Everyone feels like the VP needs to be informed so they CC her on everything they send which rapidly overwhelms even the fastest email user. That's the biggest reason why people want to ban email; however there is no actual replacement that doesn't lose email's biggest advantage, its asynchronous nature. You can replace everything email does with other technologies, but in the end you wind up with the same issues.

What is worse, 300 emails a day or 300 instant messages a day or 300 Facebook posts or 300 phone calls a day or 300 texts a day when you actually have to work too? Would you rather check 5 different systems to get communications? Maybe you could CC your email from each system. Oh wait -- you need email for that.

The basic problem this company is complaining about is that its employees spend too much time communicating inefficiently! The nature of the modern workplace is often people working together are not close together, making collaboration difficult. Blaming email is really a proxy for blaming complexity in todays model of working together and that's a much harder management problem than simply replacing email.

I can predict that this company will likely wind up with the same problems and perhaps more complicated systems to try to replace it. Unless they tackle the more difficult issue of optimizing how people actually collaborate and instead try a simple technology replacement they will wind up with the same problem.

Someone once said "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest". I could say the same thing about email but I won't. It may suck but at least you can ignore it with the handy trash can.

I once worked in a place where the project manager I worked with had a flunky (yes that's demeaning sounding but fits so perfectly) who always came to my cube and just stood there behind me until I noticed him, sometimes for minutes at a time, to tell me something the project manager had just said. He wouldn't leave either so I had to constantly look around to see if he was there which drove me nuts. I wouldn't trade a 1000 emails for that "improvement" in collaboration.

Email may suck in many ways but so far there isn't any decent single alternative.

I once tried to get an employer to allow me to set up a collaboration system to collect all online discussions about a project including feature requests, bug reports and documents just so that everything relating to a project was in one place.

No one used it. People continued to email each other and I gave up.