I like email, or, why we should talk more about digital as problem-solving.

A woman typing on a laptop

I like email, or, why we should talk more about digital as problem-solving.

You may have seen recently that people are talking about the newly introduced Workplace by Facebook – the internal communications tools that works just like Facebook, with newsfeeds, groups, chat, reactions, search, and live video. And it got me thinking that increasingly I’m seeing articles saying email is so problematic or will soon be obsolete, and suggesting other communication and collaboration tools – like Slack, Workplace, Hipchat, Yammer, and many more – as alternatives to email.

But, I like email. Maybe it puts me in a minority but I think email is getting a really hard time, and actually a lot of the problems we have with it won’t be solved by the alternatives suggested.

To be clear, I’m not against internal communication tools like Workplace, Yammer, or Slack, they have their own merits. But they also have their own problems. For example, having to teach people how to use it, not just now but every time someone new comes to work for you. Also, there’s always the fear that some new tool will come along and make the one you’ve chosen obsolete. No one wants to be tied to a Kodak, and who’s to say this won’t happen with one of these tools? It’s great to get in on something new while it’s still being developed – like how some charities have started collecting bitcoin donations, often with great success – but it can also be risky. By comparison, the first email was sent in 1971, it’s a pretty tried and tested way to communicate!

But, more perinatally, you’ll still have to use email anyway in order to communicate with people who don’t work at your organisation. The good thing about email is that whatever client I’m using – be it Gmail, Outlook, Hotmail, etc. – I can still email you on a different client, all I need is your email address. But, if one organisation is using Workplace and one is using Slack, they’ll still have to email each other because messages can’t be shared across those platforms. That’s not to mention all the emails you get from the public – let’s not forget that the vast majority of people (85%) use email, while a smaller 62% use any one of the many social media sites, making email the form of online communication used by most people.

The main issue with email seems to be that there is too much of it – many articles cite coming back from holiday to thousands of emails in your inbox as one of the main bugbears – and that it’s taking too much of our time. But, in reducing the number of emails we’ve increased the number of places we get communications and notifications from. Technology journalist Walt Mossberg recently wrote an article asking “can we endure even one more communications service?”. He makes the point that there are so many ways to communicate with one another now that we’re inundated with notifications from a number of places, all of which have to be checked and responded to. He goes as far as to say “Sometimes, I yearn for the old days of email dominance (I can’t believe I typed those words). Why? Because despite the spam, you could be pretty sure you were good if you just checked it a few times a day, since most people used it as their primary means of written communication” (he expands on all of this discussion in the fantastic Ctrl Walt Delete podcast, which you can hear here – it really is worth a listen). We may be frustrated at spending so much time on email, but are we really spending any less time communicating, or are we now just spreading it across more platforms?

One of the extolled benefits of these communication tools as alternatives to emails is that everyone at an organisation can know so much more about what is happening, without the need for annoying blanket emails. For example, Robin Fisk, co-founder of Donorfy, has said that they now use Slack for their internal communications, and he’s quoted as saying “We get notifications of key activity… so the whole team can be aware of what’s going on at any time, no matter where we’re working from”. But if we’re concerned about there being too much email to keep up with, isn’t this worse, or at least just as bad. Imagine trying to keep up with all the things in your timeline on Facebook every day!

I’m not arguing against these tools – I’ve used them, I’ve even recommended them to people. My question is – are our problems with email really problems caused by email? There are a lot of things that lead to having too many emails, like copying in too many people, or getting into a specific and detailed conversation that drags on, or sending emails that just say things like ‘thanks’, etc. etc. But, aren’t these all things we could (and would) do on pretty much any communication channel? The fact is, these problems are caused by humans, not email. So, replacing email with something else won’t necessarily solve those problems.

Tech and digital tools can’t automatically solve all our problems. Especially not if those problems are actually caused by us misusing tech. If you have a problem caused by email (which you could have, I’m not arguing that it’s perfect!), then yes, use something else, but it’s not so simple if you have a problem caused by people being annoying. We can’t just go to what is new and assume it will help us, we need to have a sophisticated conversation about what our problems are, and consider how we might solve them. One of these communications tools might help in your workplace. They might not. It completely depends on what particular challenges and issues you are facing.

Tech helps us the most when we use it strategically, which is why we should talk about digital as problem-solving – not just assume it is problem-solving. To improve our workplaces and communications, we should talk about problems more, and tech less.

Facebook (10th October 2016) Introducing Workplace by Facebook

Kirsty Marrins, Third Sector (14th October 2016) How Workplace by Facebook is improving charities’ internal communications

Emma Rodgers, comms2point0 (3rd August 2016) Help – there’s too much email

Bill Goodwin, Computer Weekly (March 2014) No more email? Why companies are turning to collaboration technology

Renuka Rayasam, BBC (25th March 2015) The end of the inbox: Companies that banned email

John Brandon, Inc. (16th April 2015) Why Email Will Be Obsolete by 2020

Chunka Mui, Forbes (18th January 2012) How Kodak Failed

A Small Orange (August 2016) 9 Genius Ways to Build Your Email List

Walt Mossberg, The Verge (6th July 2016) The tyranny of messaging and notifications

Kirsty Marrins, Third Sector (3rd August 2016) How to use Slack for internal communications

  • A Small Orange
    Posted at 16:06h, 07 November Reply

    Wonderful article, thank you for mentioning A Small Orange!

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