Email addiction: Why the enterprise 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 on to something.

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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 on to 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 are off email as well. 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.

Then again, there was a reason Breton came in for so much derision: Email in the enterprise isn't going anywhere. Or more precisely, it 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 enterprise employees, that means more time spent in the inbox, not only on PCs and laptops but now on tablets and smartphones, wading through newsletters, social media notifications and unfiltered spam in search of the mail they truly need to do their jobs, to say nothing of the time spent filing, archiving and retrieving those messages.

For IT, that means more screams from users about storage limits being too low (especially when Google lets them keep everything), as well as worries about security, archiving, retention, ediscovery, deletion and syncing mail between mobile devices. And then there's the cost: In 2010, Gartner estimated associated email costs of $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, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Simply put, we may hate email, but we can't work without it. But if enterprise email volume is going to boom the way Radicati's numbers indicate, something's going to have to change, CIOs and messaging experts agree. 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 has utility and ubiquity. 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, where only some use communication alternatives like chat, videoconferencing or SMS texting.

Beyond that, email creates a de facto audit trail as it goes, tracking who sent what to whom when, one that is easily stored, forwarded and, barring space limitations, readily available on one's computer.

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

Oakland County's Bertolini is a big fan of email -- given that the public sector is still heavily paper-based, email still counts 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."

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 that ... in 2007. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse.

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

Email's people problem

Is the enterprise's email addiction rooted in technology or in user behavior? Both, analysts say.

"Email is only as good as the person who organizes it," observes Sara Radicati, president and CEO of The Radicati Group, which tracks use of email and other messaging media.

Over the years, enterprise email systems have added an ever-increasing number of sophisticated organizational tools, but "users still have to train the system, which is where it breaks down," Radicati explains. "Users forget how they set it up a certain way, and why. Somebody who is highly organized and structured will do well with these tools, and someone who is naturally chaotic will be chaotic."

Adam Glick, Microsoft product manager for Exchange and Outlook, acknowledges, "You can change the tools, but you can't change the people." Just one example -- the current version of Office 2013 includes an option that lets users ignore any email with a particular subject line if that thread has become irrelevant to the recipient. On a grander scale, Exchange and Outlook are becoming more of a communication hub, with greater integration of chat and unified communications, Glick says.

But no matter what gets integrated or how communications evolves, IT needs to help users make the most of the new platforms, and users need to turn that assistance into action.

"IT needs to explain how and when to use these features in email," says Radicati, "and people need to learn to improve their efficiency."

Over the years developers have tried to break through users' dependence on email with software that's more sophisticated and better suited to the enterprise task at hand -- often with only narrow 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 Salesforce works in the sales arena for specific needs.

But typically these systems have failed to attain email's level of ubiquity because they offered a solution that may indeed be superior to email, but only for a narrow population of enterprise 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 suffice for another (e.g., customer service).

Even when new communications tools like Yammer and Chatter do take hold throughout the enterprise, what happens? Users route their notifications to the one place they're most likely to see them first -- the ubiquitous email inbox.

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