Friday, September 24, 2004

Publish Day - Why E-mail is Useless

More good news from my world of words.

Looks like it’s a busy week for getting published. Processor Magazine has just published my tech opinion piece, Kiss Your Inbox Goodbye. In it, I prattle on about how e-mail’s utility is slowly being eroded by the rising tide of spam and related unsolicited garbage that clogs our inboxes like a relentless toxic sludge.

[Pause to collect myself. There, I am once again at peace.]

I’ve pasted the text of the article below. Alternatively, you can click the link above (or here, if you don’t want to move your mouse that far.) I do this because going to the web site will allow you to once again see the horrid pixellated filter that they applied to the picture we submitted for the byline. Yes, I’ve become Frodo (he’s a Lord of the Rings character, apparently.)

The site’s a bit of an adventure to navigate, but it offers PDF versions of the magazine’s print version – which is a pretty cool trick. Find this week’s print edition here. My article’s on page 28.

The opinions archive page is here. Lots more rants where those came from! Happy reading.

(And, yes, I’m still using e-mail despite my overt pessimism toward the technology. Even my annoyances have their limits as far as practicality is concerned.)

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Info-Tech Insight
Kiss Your Inbox Goodbye

We gather here today to mark the passing of a once-promising technology known as electronic mail. In the beginning, it allowed us to quickly and inexpensively fling our written thoughts across the office and around the world with no effort beyond that required to click the Send button.

Email accelerated the pace of business, reconnected us with our far-away mothers, and generally restored the written word to an electronic image of its former glory.

But given humanity's propensity to destroy things that are unabashedly good, it didn't take long for rot to creep in. I'll spare you the gory details. All you need to do is open your inbox every morning, and the results are painfully clear: endless screens of badly spelled pitches for cheap drugs, penile enhancement, and dates with babes. Somewhere in that mess are a few real messages. So be careful as you wade through the crud because you don't want to delete that memo from your Executive VP. Oh, and don't let your kids see the smutty pictures, either.

Beyond The Point Of No Return

Survey after survey shows the problem is only getting worse. Antispam tools are the equivalent of a finger in the dike while the torrent of sludge continues to spill over the top. There's no stopping it, save for moving to another medium.

Beyond spam, email represents a threat to the organization's ability to properly store, secure, and use its repositories of knowledge. Individual users maintain huge amounts of data in poorly structured folder hierarchies on their PCs. Forget for a brief second the massive risk of having business-critical data locked — and not backed up — on a user's local hard drive. At the end of the day, we're squirreling away our knowledge in a tool that wasn't designed to be a knowledge database. This threatens business efficiency and effectiveness.

It's then fair to conclude that email's best days are behind it. The time to start planning a move away from email—and toward more enlightened tools—is now.

New Tools Show Promise

If your employees are spending more time sifting through emailed garbage than they are communicating with clients and each other, email has outlived its usefulness in your environment. Thankfully, new tools are evolving rapidly to fill what promises to be a giant vacuum. Here's a quick look:

Discussion groups. Before there was a World Wide Web, there was Usenet. Before there was an Internet, there were electronic Bulletin Board Systems. These both allowed users to post messages to public boards and facilitated rapid collaboration between disparate groups of users. These days, new Web-based group discussion tools, including free services from Yahoo! and MSN, represent great places to get your feet wet.

Blogs. Short for Web log, blogs are no longer merely venting tools for angst-ridden teenagers. Savvy businesses are starting to use this sequential electronic publication tool for sharing updated information with their con stituent base—and for getting rapid feedback from them, as well. Movable Type and Google's Blogger services are worth a look.

RSS. Also known as Resource Description Framework (RDF) Site Summary or Rich Site Summary, RSS is an XML-based method of distributing Web content. As a natural outgrowth of the blog phenomenon, leading-edge organizations use RSS feeds to distribute rapidly changing content to a wide audience. This content includes, but isn't limited to, news stories, project updates, discussion forum highlights, and corporate information. Even better, RSS readers don't have to surf to a Web site. Instead, their reader software consolidates their chosen feeds and serves them up. It's structurally beneficial, too, because it avoids the now-universal bottlenecks of worm-attacked Web sites and spam-infested email servers. Popular tools include Feed Reader, AmphetaDesk, and Radio UserLand.

Collaborative tools. Microsoft SharePoint and Groove Networks Workspace allow real-time group collaboration without the overhead of a clogged inbox. Remember Lotus Notes? These fulfill a similar function, only far more effectively. As an added bonus, they tie into your existing tools, like Microsoft Office, Outlook, and Messenger.

Turning Off The Spigot

Like all addictive drugs, email is a hard habit to kick. I'm not suggesting we abandon our inboxes tomorrow. Cold turkey may work for some soon-to-be-ex-smokers, but when you still conduct a huge chunk of business activity within this flawed medium, a phased withdrawal is more in order.

Smart organizations will begin investigating the aforementioned technologies now. Set them up in a test lab. If you're too small for a test lab, use an extra machine under your desk and play with your new toys over lunch. Take the time to learn how these tools can be used to allow you to share business knowledge within your organization and with the outside world. Don't waste any more time sifting through spam.

The mistake we've been making since the dawn of the Internet is assuming that email is electronic communication. It isn't. It's just one tool among many that lets us share. And it's beyond termi nallyill. It's dead. It's time to trade its technological corpse in for a newer model.

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Send your comments to
infotech@processor.com

Carmi Levy is a senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, a London, Ontario-based research and professional services firm focused on providing premium research and advice geared to the unique needs of IT professionals of midsized enterprises. Levy holds a journalism degree from Montreal's Concordia University and has extensive experience in IT project management, helpdesk re-engineering, high performance team leadership, and process redesign.

2 comments:

Wheelson said...

Very nice.

At my work I sold the QA group on the idea of using a Wiki. Before I got there issues were being talked about in Meetings and then the group would have no visibility into decisions being made on the information shared at the meeting. Furthermore, if additional discussion was needed it took place over email. People were using notebooks and email as a collaboration tool and as a place to store knowledge. Of course, unless you were CC'd on email messages or had access to a notebook, you were out of the loop.

My hope is that we use email for what email is good at and use other better suited tools to communicate in ways where we previously communicated using the ill suited email tools.

Carmi said...

I can't wait to hear more about your Wiki experience. I think much of the problem with e-mail is that it's evolved into workflow functions for which it was never intended. It's a great point-to-point, one-to-one mode of communication. Yet organizations have tried to shoehorn group-based work into this infrastructure for years. They think it can do it all, and it just can't.

Please keep us posted - ideally through your blog and through comments on everyone else's - on how the Wiki implementation goes.

Who knows, maybe someday soon we'll emerge from this period of tool-centric myopia.