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Learning to Love Email

Friday, April 1, 2011
I've beaten wikis to death in this space. I've presented arguments about how we can use them more effectively, why we need to shift how our organizations look at them, and even tried to explain how enterprise wikis change the traditional relationship between accountability and responsibility. In so doing, I think I may have overlooked a key factor:

Email.

That's right, email.

Now before you accuse me blasphemy, hear me out. I agree that many of us are literally swimming in email on a daily basis. If we weren't, there would be far less demand inside the organization for email-enabled smartphones, for placing hard caps on employees email storage capacities, or for the need to deploy email management techniques like Inbox Zero (which I admit I am currently using). Email is the one tool that has completely penetrated our workflows, and while on the whole I still think that using email to coordinate work is often inefficient, it has ultimately become the de facto modus operandi for most organizations.

Whether we like it or not, email is where the majority of us conduct our day to day operations, it's where our business happens, and it is where our decisions are made; and this, this simple fact, is why I think email is (might be?) the key to unlocking the true collaborative potential of our organizations. In short, email is where the people already are. We may have wasted some of our previous efforts trying to dislodge email's stranglehold on our workplace culture rather than strategically positioning other complementary tools around it.

Think about popular social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Govloop.

They all have both internal email systems and also send an email to your external email address whenever you are touched within the system. This is their way of bringing you back into the platform itself. Now existing government wide systems like GCPEDIA, GCConnex and GCForums already ping us with emails but lack the user base to make using an internalized email system worthwhile. Compare this to the behemoth that is Facebook: someone may never even need to leave the walled garden if everyone they email is inside the garden with them. Think of it this way: there are currently 500 million active users on Facebook.

I'm not certain, but I think that in addition to being an enormous social network, Facebook is also the single largest global email directory on the planet. Where else can you find contact information quickly for 500 million people? Moreover, Facebook contextualizes your search by prioritizing your current friends, people who are in your "Kevin Bacon" network, your geographic network etc. Not to mention that you don't have to be connected to someone in order to send them a message. I don't think it is a stretch to posit that for some, Facebook has become (or is on their way to becoming) their primary email system.


The lesson from Facebook is clear

Tie your service in with people's existing email systems but also provide an internal alternative whose value scales with the number of people using the network and you may just erode the usefulness of existing email systems. I think the key piece of insight here is understanding that the majority of work occurs in your organization's email system, so if your approach to enterprise collaboration doesn't seamlessly integrate with (or completely replace) your enterprise's email client, your deployment will ultimately fail. Organizations need to build around email if they want it to cede its territory to alternate forms of communication. More specifically, they need to build around email and calendaring (which are usually part and parcel of the same system, this is why I expect Facebook to move towards more robust calendaring in the future).

To my mind, building enterprise collaboration around email (rather than in spite of it) is exactly why Google's Apps for Government is so popular in the United States and why many Microsoft shops are adopting SharePoint. Moreover, when systems built around current email-based workflows are properly supported with single sign-on and a federated search adoption undoubtedly becomes much easier. Ironically, this may also be the core challenge in the coming years of any multi-jurisdictional or Government of Canada-wide collaborative platforms.

Maybe its time we forget trying to supplant the email culture, embrace it, and move it forward. Let's learn to love email again.

[image credit: Tim Morgan]

This was originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca