Why the enterprise can't shake its email addiction

Forget new (and better) technologies -- email is as entrenched in the business world as it's ever been. Here's why we can't break free.

Atos CEO Thierry Breton caught a lot of flak last year when he announced he wanted his employees to give up email, but he may have been onto something.

Kids these days don't use email -- digital market research company comScore found that use of Web-based email dropped 31 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds and 34 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds in the period between December 2010 and December 2011.

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And consumers in general are also off email. The Radicati Group, which tracks use of email and other messaging media, projects the number of consumer emails will decrease by 3 to 4 percent each year between 2012 and 2016.

Then again, there was a reason Breton came in for so much derision: Enterprise email isn't going anywhere. Or, more precisely, enterprise email usage isn't going anywhere but up. Radicati is projecting the number of business emails to increase by 13 percent every single year between now and 2016.

For businesspeople, that means more time scrolling through the inbox (not only on PCs and laptops, but now on tablets and smartphones) clicking past newsletters, social media notifications, and spam in search of the messages they truly need to do their jobs, and then later filing, archiving, and retrieving those messages.

For IT, that means more complaints from users about storage limits being too low (especially when Google lets them keep everything), as well as worries about security, archiving, retention, e-discovery, deletion, and syncing mail between mobile devices. And then there's the cost: In 2010, Gartner estimated that the various costs tied to email add up to $192 per user per year.

Why do we subject ourselves to this madness? Because for all its aggravations, email works. "It's still an efficient way of communicating, almost in real time," says Phil Bertolini, CIO of Michigan's Oakland County, who's responsible for 10,000 email boxes.

"It does what it's designed to do quite well, which is allow us to securely communicate on a one-to-one or one-to-few basis," says Rob Koplowitz, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Simply put, we may hate email, but we can't work without it. But CIOs and messaging experts agree that something must change that if enterprise email volume is going to boom the way Radicati's numbers indicate. Email is going to have to get more sophisticated and, at the same time, easier to use. And the people doing the using, who often make life harder for themselves, need to evolve, too.

Why we love email

We love email because it's useful and ubiquitous. It keeps us connected and updated without requiring sender and recipients to be online at the same time, thanks to its asynchronous nature. Everyone doing business today can reasonably be expected to have an email address, whereas only some people use alternative tools like chat, videoconferencing or SMS texting.

Beyond that, email creates a de facto audit trail with a record of who sent what to whom when. And, barring space limitations, that trail is readily available on one's computer.

The result of this success? "Nobody can live without it for more than two minutes," says Sara Radicati, president and CEO of The Radicati Group.

From Unix mail (b. 1972), IBM PROFS (b. 1981) and DEC All-In-1 (b. 1982) to email clients, integrated email (think Lotus Notes) and Web-based mail to today's cloud-based options, email has evolved because we have needed it.

Bertolini is a big fan of email -- since the public sector is still heavily paper-based, email still counts as a big technological step forward. "We can chase new technologies, but I need something that's trusted and used by the masses. Even though there are people clamoring for newer ways to communicate, email is our main form of communication," he says.

Why we hate email

Unfortunately, email's positives -- its utility and ubiquity -- have become its negatives as well.

Consider this complaint: "It doesn't matter if the message comes from a spammer hawking Viagra, your wife asking you to pick up some wine, your boss telling the company that Monday is a holiday, or a client asking for a meeting at his office at 11 a.m. In today's inboxes, all email messages are equal," journalist Om Malik wrote six years ago, in 2007. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse.

The problem, says Koplowitz, is that "we use email for things it wasn't designed to do." Hooked on email, users default to it for scheduling, workflow planning, resource management, archiving, document management, project management and even knowledge management. Often, ideas that should be shared widely are locked up in an email chain among a narrow list of recipients. "The things it does poorly have become problematic," Koplowitz sums up.

Over the years, developers have tried to break through users' dependence on email with software that's more sophisticated and better suited to certain enterprise tasks -- often with only limited success.

Knowledge management systems, touted in the 1990s as the next big thing, failed to catch on, while collaboration systems like Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint have been variously successful; the inclusion of Chatter into the Salesforce.com system serves specific needs of salespeople.

But typically these systems have failed to become as widespread as email because, while they offered a solution that may indeed have been superior to email, they did so only for a narrow population of users.

"There's a high correlation in the success of these tools when they're aligned with recognizable business value," says Koplowitz. Unfortunately, he adds, there's frequently an organizational mismatch. The tools that work for one department (e.g., sales) may not work for another (e.g., customer service).

And when a new communication tool like Yammer or Chatter does take hold throughout the enterprise, what happens? Users route their notifications to the one place they're most likely to see them first -- the omnipresent email inbox.

IT's email burden

For IT, email is an ongoing headache. Niraj Jetly, CIO at Edenred USA, the Newton, Mass.-based U.S. division of a global developer of employee benefits and incentive solutions, cites a quartet of hassles: the sheer volume of messages, compliance and security concerns, the risks that arise when users access corporate email on their personal devices, and international routing problems.

"No one can support ever-increasing mailbox sizes," he says. "At the same time, we have to ensure the safety and security of sensitive data being transmitted. We have to ensure the availability of emails archived by users on their laptops or desktops."

As a divisional CIO within a multinational organization, Jetly also says getting email from continent to continent is a challenge. "It gets very tricky when different government [regulations] and private-sector contracts restrict email routing," he explains. For instance, certain Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard mandates require that emails originating in the U.S. stay in the U.S.

The bring-your-own-device trend also worries him. "If an organization needs encrypted email but also supports BYOD, supporting access to corporate email on personal devices becomes a neverending challenge," Jetly says. "And if a user loses a personal device, who has liability for the loss of data?"

Pete Kardiasmenos, a systems architect at SBLI USA, manages the New York-based insurance company's Exchange servers and gets involved with "anything relating to email." His biggest issue: Users turning to free external email systems, such as Yahoo Mail and Gmail, to circumvent corporate storage limits.

"They don't have bad intentions. They want to know why they're limited to 500 megabytes when Gmail is unlimited. It's because the more space you have, the more time backup takes, the more complicated disaster recovery is. We have to constantly communicate our policies," he says. Like a lot of big enterprises, SBLI USA has had to block access to public email systems from company-owned computers as a security measure, and it has had to limit space in Exchange for most users because of the cost of storage.

Even then, he says, email is still a headache. "People keep email in their inbox the same way they keep files on their desktop, to keep them handy. They send the same file back and forth as an attachment until you have 10 versions that you have to store."

For Oakland County's Bertolini, management is the challenge -- managing passwords, and managing Outlook's .pst backup files when they get too big. At least, he says, when those files get too large, they start to generate error messages. "We find out about it when [users] have a problem," Bertolini says with a sigh.

"In one case, we discovered thousands of emails dating back to 2001," Bertolini recalls. "And the real problem is that most of them dealt with trivia like meeting for lunch. There's a cost to maintaining and managing email over time."

IT's biggest email-related burden is simply uptime, says Radicati. "The overriding concern for IT is making sure that it's up and running and available," she says.

Email in the cloud

So what's IT supposed to do? Certainly, the cloud offers one of several ways to view email differently. Radicati is optimistic about email in the cloud. "It's absolutely the way to go," she says. "A lot of cloud-based email providers have archiving and compliance capabilities in place, and if you want more features, you can purchase them as an additional capability."

In Oakland County, Bertolini is investigating using Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud. "There's still a cost associated with storage, but part of our ROI analysis will be comparing the cost of storage in the cloud versus letting people keep more email," he says, adding that he's worried that if "you give them more storage, they will fill it up."

But he also sees other advantages. "If I can host email externally and still have the safety and security the county government needs, I can save millions in the long term. We'd need two to three people to manage Microsoft Exchange, but if I go to the cloud, I don't need those people. And in three or four years, I'm not replacing my mail servers."

Still, questions remain. "A lot of IT departments are investigating moving email to the cloud," Radicati says, "but there is still concern about whether it will be private enough, secure enough and reliable enough."

Merging communications tools

Like many systems IT has to deal with, email's boundaries are expanding, which means IT needs to begin thinking about email less as a silo and more as one component of a multimodal communications system.

Bertolini notes that the new generation of employees clamors for instant messaging -- and he's not against it. "They use it to collaborate. When they have chat, they can get things done in real time." He's also looking at more videoconferencing, first on a one-to-one basis from desktop to desktop, and then from conference room to conference room, and then into a multipoint video arraignment system for the public safety team, because it saves having to transport the county's prisoners among facilities.

Fortunately, these communication mechanisms will start to merge, analysts predict. Two to five years from now, email won't look tremendously different, but we won't talk about it as a stand-alone tool as much as we do today, says Radicati. Instead, we'll have a communications dashboard that includes email, instant messaging and social media.

These hubs will come about thanks to new open APIs, not only for social media applications like Facebook and LinkedIn, but also for unified communications protocols like Session Initiation Protocol and Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol.

Forrester's Koplowitz concurs. "Over the next few years, we'll see greater integration across these tools. Think about how messaging is integrated into Gmail -- you don't have to switch back and forth because they're all integrated together," he says, citing similar functionality in systems from IBM (with Connections and Notes), Microsoft (with SharePoint and Yammer), and Facebook.

"We'll have a new environment with new aspects of communication," Koplowitz predicts. "Today they're different tools, but in the next three to five years, they'll be integrated."

A Silicon Valley-based freelance writer, Baldwin is a frequent Computerworld contributor.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "Why the enterprise can't shake its email addiction" was originally published by Computerworld.

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