Are we approaching the end of email?

Last updated 05:00 15/08/2012
you've got mail
HIT: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starred in the romantic comedy 'You've got mail'.

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It seems that email is now no longer a speedy form of communication, writes Richard Parker.

There was a time, say about 1998 when the hit romantic comedy of the same name made its debut, that the phrase was cute.

Email was a fast, special way to be connected. AOL's ringy-dingy reminder was charming. Then email stopped being cute and special because everyone had it. Then it stopped being charming because it never stopped.

Now we find ourselves stuck with the most ironic of unintended consequences of the once efficient email: its vast inefficiency.

The email is frequently followed by the text: "Did u get my email?" Or worse, the dreaded phone call to ask the same question.

The sheer volume of corporate email is a pretentious sign of importance; the more you get the higher in the corporate pecking order you must reside. Work matters go to die in graveyards of never-ending, corporate email chains. Email now consumes much of our work week, driving down efficiency and productivity.

It's gotten so bad there's an unintended consequence to the unintended consequence: We may actually be mercifully approaching the end of email.

Email was actually born nearly 50 years ago in 1965 on the campus of MIT as a way for computer users to share messages. I will confess my own guilt: I was an early adopter of email in the late 1980s and early 1990s when all things internet were just obscure enough to be interesting and just accessible enough to be free or cheap.

I would dial up my Compuserve account and patiently wait while my computer connected. And sure enough there might be three or four emails, usually work-related. Or perhaps there was one from another long lost, nerd friend.

And as a nerd, I confess: it was fun. So the movie was fun and cute, too. On screen, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, at the direction of the late Nora Ephron, encountered each other in person as work rivals fighting over the book store business. (What happened to that?) But they were also, unknown to each other, electronic pen pals who bit by bit fell in love. All through email. Email was personal, after all. And of course, the movie ended with true love begun on AOL but unveiled in a Manhattan park.

Fast forward to today. Each day, 250 billion emails are sent; that number is in the process of doubling, according to Messagemind, a New York email software company. They contain spam, viruses, malicious code and phishing scams from unknown Russian gangs and enterprising Nigerian criminals. At work, this once speedy form of communication - "Sure." "Yes." "No." "Let's meet on this." - is the least effective way to get anything done.

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I know one publishing executive who consistently apologises by email for not responding to emails he says are important. He is very polite in his apologies. And then he proceeds to not respond. I had one exchange go on for two days only to settle it in two minutes on the phone. The email is the new conference call. Which is the old meeting. And as the old saw says, "When you're in a meeting you're not working". The same is true of email: when you're managing it, you're not producing.

My friend Mark Seiler, president of a beverage company, notices that emails take on lives of their own inside larger companies; vast numbers of executives and assistants are weighing in, positioning an issue in a certain light for advancement or credit. Or waiting on others to respond first. What could be settled in a 10-minute phone call or a 20-minute face-to-face meeting stretches out over days and then weeks and then months.

Phil Herring, an apartment manager, got 1500 emails over a weekend in his last job; he got a new one. Shawn Lively, a magazine publisher, gets so little face time with clients and vendors that most think she is a man.

It turns out that workers spend 41 per cent of their time going through business email, according to a paper by Messagemind. In Britain, not only did one in five workers say they spent that much time on email, according to an IBM study, but 20 per cent of the time the email was useless, pointless or sent to the wrong person in the first place.

Volkswagen has reportedly banned corporate email to workers with Blackberry devices during non-working hours. And Atos - a global information technology company - has purportedly vowed to stop using email by 2014. These last two tidbits come from IdeaPlane, a London company that is trying to divert the torrent of email into more efficient channels of communication.

Email efficiency expert Marsha Eghan estimates that workers lose at least an hour a day to on average 15 "email interruptions" - not just checking email but email that makes them stop doing what they're supposed to be doing. The research firm Basex estimates that interruptions total $650 billion in annual losses. So, people like Eghan offer coaching, advise a week for emptying the inbox and even provide posters.

But the best idea may come from a London company which advocates that companies ditch email. Amen. But in favour of what exactly? A phone call? A meeting? A Star Trek communicator?

No. It turns out that enterprise social networking will replace email.

Gartner, the IT research firm, predicts that in 2014 companies will substitute enterprise social networking for email in 20 per cent of their communications. In other words, Facebook for business.

Awesome. I'm sure that will work.

- The Press

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