Love it or hate it, email forms a major part of most business communication between employees, and between businesses. Some people see it as the bane of their working life, while others praise its simplicity and ubiquity. As usual, when such a disparity of opinions exists, the truth lies somewhere in between. In order to have any sort of intelligent debate about how to improve business communication, we need to acknowledge email’s strengths and understand its weaknesses.
For all its faults, there are plenty of reasons why we keep using email. It is ubiquitous –
almost every internet-enabled device can send and receive emails. You can read email on your PC, tablet, phone and receive email alerts from your security webcam or maybe even your fridge. This ubiquity comes at least in part from the openness of email – standards such as SMTP, IMAP and POP make it very easy for email capabilities to be added to new applications and devices.
Email is less disruptive than instant messaging or phone calls, allowing the recipient to read and reply at a time of their choosing, not that of the sender. And finally, it is easy to use, and for simple person-to-person discussions that have no lasting importance, email is usually a perfectly adequate solution.
But this simplicity also hints at some of email’s weaknesses. Email may be easy to use, but it is much harder to use it well. While many of the criticisms of email are actually about the way people use it, email tools do little to discourage bad habits. The reply-to-all habit is one of the most obvious of these – as conversations progress, the distribution list gets longer and longer. People get added to the cc list to ensure they are aware that the conversation exists (even if they have no need to participate in it), or often out of the sender’s fear of causing offence by not including someone.
As a result, we all receive an ever-increasing volume of messages, making it increasingly hard to separate signal from noise. To compensate for this, most spam filters err on the side of over-zealousness, meaning important messages sometimes fail to get through. And when they do get through, they often end up competing for your attention with those notifications from your fridge or webcam.
Email also lacks accountability. “Read receipts” on emails are notoriously unreliable, so you often don’t know if the recipient is going to do what you asked them to in an email, or whether they even received this email until they reply. I’m sure we have all sent far more “did you receive this message?” or “please can you reply to my earlier message?” emails than we care to mention.
But email’s failings go beyond bad personal communication habits. It is an inherently poor tool for conversations between more than 2 people. With different people replying at different times, the number of messages proliferates and it can be very hard to follow the thread of the discussion. As more participants are added, this problem gets exponentially worse, with no one person owning a single, definitive copy of the conversation.
A side-effect of this is to fragment corporate knowledge. A huge amount of a company’s knowledge is held in email discussions, and these typically live in individual employees’ mail folders, rather than as a central company resource.
However, despite all these failings, email is now so well established and so widespread, it is unrealistic to expect it to disappear from our working lives any time soon. Instead, we need to make sure we use it for the things it is good at, and find alternative solutions for things it is bad at. This typically means finding a better tool for group discussions that should be retained to form part of an organisation’s collective knowledge, while relegating email to becoming a universal notification system. Email’s role should increasingly become one of telling people that something has happened and directing the recipient towards the content rather than being the sole carrier of that content.
This trend has already started with the growth of social networks, which are a much better platform for group discussions and deliver their notifications via email. But not all social networks are equally suited for business communication – this will be the topic of the next article in this series.
Richard Hughes is the author of ‘Business Communication Revolution’, and director of social strategy at BroadVision.
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