My co-author on this article, Francois Koutchouk, has a long background in designing and implementing groupware technologies. We were discussing recent trends in the use, and abuse, of email and perhaps seeing the signs that herald the decline of email as it is currently used. Our particular concern was the widespread and entrenched reliance on email as a flawed work management tool.
Getting things done
The heart of most business processes and team collaboration is a series of work request transactions and the means to keep track of their progress (or lack thereof).
Simplicity and ubiquity make email an acceptable tool to initiate requests. But email is not adequate for tracking the dialog that follows. Email does not support many key aspects of successful work requests including:
- Formalize an agreement by the recipient to perform, complete, and deliver on a request
- Negotiate the priority or completion date of a request
- Track which party has the ball for the next action
- Expose dependencies (dependent tasks)
- Share work-in-progress beyond the immediate participants
- Capture a historical record of the dialog in the context of the request and the project to which the request relates
- Establish credibility and therefore the trust between the requester and performer based on previous performance
- Distinguish work that is required to move the business forward from all types of messages, comments, and random information.
The technical reason is simple: email does not provide a structured repository nor workflow features. Email is therefore woefully inadequate as a tool for handling business processes.
Most knowledge workers acknowledge this conundrum while facing daily onslaughts of emails, irrelevant cc-ed messages, lengthy reply-to threads and late-night Blackberry messages as the deadline is nearing.
How much longer will we persist with this obviously flawed tool for managing critical business relationships and processes?
Getting out of your inbox
Let’s use the example of a successful sales rep. Throughout the sales cycle, she needs to coordinate with a variety of individuals within her company:
- Engineering and Product Management to answer technical questions from the client,
- Procurement and Legal to fine tune contracts,
- Accounting and Finance for payments and invoicing,
- Supply Chain, Production, and Manufacturing for delivery status,
- Senior management for account management, and
- She may also have to coordinate with third parties, such as resellers, shippers, add-on components purchased from suppliers, etc.
To meet the prospect’s expectations and delivery timetable there will be a flurry of emails, most of which are at risk of becoming the proverbial messages-in-a-bottle unless she follows up rigorously (assuming she remembers to follow up – since there is no automatic reminder that something hasn’t been handled). A single breakdown in communications may delay or compromise the deal and business relationship.
Clearly, email is an inadequate tool for managing this work by substituting a low quantity of results-based communications with a high quantity of inefficient messages. The solution may be to move all those disjointed communications and touch-points out of the traditional email system.
One alternate approach is to use project management software such as Microsoft Project or other cloud-based equivalent solutions. These tools track task assignments, due dates and dependencies, but they are fundamentally single-user applications that do not capture the dialog between the parties regarding negotiation of delivery commitments and changes in status during delivery. And because these tools require a heavy investment in learning new skills and methods they are best left to project management professionals handling complex tasks, such as building a new hospital wing or managing an ERP installation.
Another approach is to use custom-built software, such as a Lotus Notes application, or a Force.com version thereof, that enforces a predetermined workflow process. Such an approach works well, tends to be simple to use, but is only appropriate for repeatable business processes – when the workflow is well known, does not change often, and involves the same series of steps and actors. As such these tools are best used for a yearly contract renewal or provisioning of new customers.
From Talk to Action
Despite our collective understanding that email is flawed as a workflow management tool, we are firmly entrenched in its use. What is needed is a generic solution that mirrors the simplicity and flexibility of email but adds better workflow tracking and management reporting features. Knowledge workers will need to be incented out of email rather than forced out. Adoption of alternate tools must be based on getting better performance from co-workers, not being told to use yet another new software system. Requests may still initiate out of email, but the conversation that follows must be managed in a shared on-line space accessible to all, including third parties.
Performers negotiate and make explicit delivery commitments that reinforce productive behavior and focus on results. Tracking the request through to delivery moves the initiative along, from talk to action. Trust builds between actors (requesters and performers), commitments are met, goals are accomplished, moods improve and email inboxes thin out.
The principles of managing work requests called “commitment based management” are 50 years old, fine-tuned by social scientists such as Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd, as well as thoroughly described in academic journals. Previous attempts to automate these principles, however, have failed to translate into workable software, despite valiant efforts from Action Technologies, Elf Technologies, and others. The key to widespread use and acceptance will be solutions where ease-of-use trumps complexity, essential to entice hardened email addicts to a new way of working.
The End of Email?
We can glimpse the future of corporate email by looking at the younger generation of home users: Facebook, Tweet/texting and less and less Google email in that order.
Business emails may dissolve similarly into three entities:
- Commitment-based messaging to handle business processes and task-based collaboration
- Instant messaging (chat, SMS, private Tweet) for time-sensitive notifications
- Cloud-based email for one-to-one conversations, casual discussions and whatever materials blur the line between the private and public life of a worker
Ultimately expenses-to-perceived value will drive the decline of email:
- High licensing and administrative costs of private email systems (Outlook, Lotus Notes, and their respective server infrastructure)
- High administrative costs to protect against viruses, spam and phishing
- Trailing support of many organizations for personal communication devices into the workplace (iPhone, iPad, SMS) leads to compliance liability
- Increased stress of workers unable to handle their inbox – magnified by round-the-clock mobile accessibility
- Email inefficiency as a tool to get actions from requests; therefore a flawed means of achieving measurable business results
Email is not going away anytime soon, but the forces of change are mounting and a new communication paradigm is budding. Work management conversations need to be tracked in a new non-email solution.