The incredible persistence of email

email collaboration
Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann

The rise of enterprise social software and easy-to-use online collaboration tools were supposed to be the undoing of corporate email. Yet while we continue to hear stories about email killers, email still thrives and is even projected to grow in businesses. Why is it not at least fading as social and collaboration tool use increase?

Let's start with some hard numbers. According to a report (pdf link) published by the Radicati Group, corporate email is growing at a rapid rate. In fact, the report states that corporate email accounts represent 25 percent of worldwide mailboxes, and corporate email will grow from 89 billion emails per day this year to a projected 143.8 billion per day by 2016, an average annual growth rate of 13 percent. 

Meanwhile consumer usage is projected to decline by 3 percent per year. The report goes onto say that instant messaging and social networks continue to explode, which could easily account for the losses to email, but even as we see consumer email decreasing, we are not seeing a corresponding drop on email dependence in business.

Whitney Bouck, general manager for Box Enterprise, says to some extent it's just a habit that's hard to break after 25 or 30 years. She also blames siloed apps that don't cross departments and firewalls, or aren't as easy to use as email. But ultimately, she says if companies are going to change, it needs to come from the top down.

"When it comes to the adoption of new communication channels like corporate social networks or collaboration tools, the best thing for companies to have is a champion, ideally at the executive level, who will be a torchbearer and will be very visible with their use of the new solution. This will inspire employees to try the new communication channel," Bouck explained. She adds that individual champions and power users also help, as does education, which can drive adoption in a significant way.

At Microsoft's SharePoint Conference last week, it was easy to see a similar dependence on Microsoft's popular corporate email tool, Outlook, in the Microsoft ecosystem. On one hand, Microsoft was pushing the cloud, social and mobile hard. Yammer, the cloud-based enterprise social software company Microsoft purchased in June for a cool $1.2 billion, took center stage at the keynote as both Yammer co-founders David Sacks and Adam Pisoni played prominent roles in the presentation. 

Yet for all of this shift to a more social enterprise, there was plenty of talk of how to continue to live and work in Outlook, where many employees still spend a good part of their working lives. Instead of trying to push people away from that work paradigm, Microsoft is trying to build Outlook integration into the new version of SharePoint.

Jared Spataro, senior director of SharePoint product management at Microsoft, says it's not an all or nothing proposition. As new ways of communicating have been layered on to existing enterprise communications channels, it doesn't eliminate what came before. "We don't take previous generations of communications and throw them in the trash bin," Spataro said. Instead they find a place as people weave them into their work.

He added, "I think there is this opportunity to reduce email in a really significant way. Over time incremental innovation can lead people to different habits, but we are not declaring the death of email here because we've got the next new thing. What people really want is the connection between these tools, and if you give them those connections and give them those great experiences, people will make smart decisions on the best way to use these tools."

Yammer CTO Pisoni says, "I think there is an opportunity to weave these things together to communicate online without a lot of the negative side effects. We don't want a lot of spam and giant cc: lists." 

But of course that's exactly what we've got right now in a lot of organizations with corporate email. We still seem to be locked into email as a communications channel, and perhaps Bouck is right -- maybe it takes a desire to change driven from the top. It also takes good social and collaboration tools, which both of these companies have built.

But one thing we have learned as enterprise social systems and collaboration tools have evolved is that simply building great tools is not enough. They need to be woven into the work experience to bring about real change. And for now, at least, that means email remains part of the equation.

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