Mar 22, 2013 6:00 AM

Email forever! Why social apps can't replace it

Social app aficionados want to kill email, but their solutions are worse than the supposed disease

You hear the complaint periodically: How can we get rid of the scourge of, the addiction to, or the backwardness of email, so we're not inundated with messages we don't care about and not glued to the screen in reaction mode all day? The answer is supposedly social collaboration software, which will free us from the tyranny of email -- an outdated terror as well, given that surveys regularly show that kids don't use email. British IT consultancy Atos became the poster child of the no-email crowd 15 months ago, after its CEO banned email internally.

The reality is that email is very good for what it does, and nothing out there is better. Email isn't about to go away, and trying to kill it is silly at best. The other reality is that most of the supposed evils of emails aren't about email itself, so the proposed alternatives do nothing to cure those supposed ails.

[ Also on InfoWorld: The fallacy of business social networking and the fallacy of collaboration technology. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Consumerization of IT newsletter today. ]

I know some people really want to get rid email. I have one colleague who tries to do it all in Twitter, so his one-to-one conversations get lost in the flow. Plus, I have no intention of having a private conversation for all to see on Twitter. (He doesn't use DM as often as he should, but even then, I have to remember to check the DM feed to see it -- which means I don't.) And there's no way to work with attachments or tackle complex issues, much less revisit the conversation beyond a few days. He's a bit extreme, but by avoiding email, he makes regular communications harder. None of us wants that.

The supposed evils of email
Let's go through the supposed issues to show why email is actually the best technology for most business communications.

Information overload. The inbox is deluged with all sorts of messages, from work-critical communications to companywide HR announcements to random missives on anything from free kittens to reply-all congrats to a promoted employee. This deluge means employees waste hours and hours figuring out what is important, losing time and responsiveness as a result. They might even miss the key emails that need a response.

This is not an email issue but a message issue. If you killed email tomorrow, all the same messages would flow across your favorite social messaging platform. The only way to reduce frivolous email is to set expectations on what should be emailed to distribution lists and when to use reply-all. If managers replied privately to a person who abuses either, the behavior will change quickly, just as it does when you bring someone aside who dominates the conversations in meetings or talks too loudly in the workplace.

The bottom line is that replacing email with another conduit doesn't reduce the messaging overload. Want proof? Note how people who have multiple social accounts are as glued to them as they are to email. And look at all the junk you wade through in your Twitter feed, Facebook timeline, and so on. You've moved the overload, not reduced it.

A passé technology. Young people don't like email, as any parent can tell you. As the younger generation enters the workforce, the use of email will create a divided communications culture of young social app users and old email users. Worse, the use of email could discourage potential recruits from working at your company, just as we've seen younger workers avoid companies that insist on the use of old-style BlackBerrys and Windows XP PCs.

Kids do a lot of things that adults don't. But that behavior changes in the workplace -- just compare the grooming and dressing patterns of college students versus mid-20s at the office (excluding programmers, of course). It's called socialization. If email is how you communicate to get your job done, trust me: Those bright kids will figure out how to use email.

Technologies change over time, so I have no doubt that some social apps will find their way into business as conduits for certain kinds of communication. As an example, for a good decade, many employees have been using instant messaging, especially in distributed workforces, as a substitute for a phone call or walk-by. But that doesn't mean the old technology always goes away.

The impulse behind this argument -- and indeed much of the anti-email argument -- seems to be an emotional, faddist one: Old stuff is bad, new stuff is good. This was the same naïve thinking we had during the dot-com bubble when any traditional approach reflected "dinosaur thinking" and had to be eliminated. Reality finally intervened and all the "forget the past" business models died, taking a good chunk of our economy back then with it. It's magical thinking at best.

Management headaches. Managing all those email boxes -- the Exchange servers, the Active Directory accounts and policies, the malware scanning, the attachment deduplication, and the massive storage -- is driving many an IT admin to drink and costing companies too much money. Get rid of email to get rid of that cost.

Let's say you replace email with instant messaging or a social tool like Yammer. Someone has to set up and manage the accounts, as well as the user directories. Messages need to be stored for discovery purposes, both for legal and internal reference needs. If there are no attachments to manage the storage, how is complex data shared -- via file shares with links? Phishing is still a potential issue that needs an antimalware strategy.

As you can see, you quickly end up creating a management, security, and storage infrastructure as complex, or perhaps more complex, than the one for email. The truth is that all of this overhead is not about email per se but about communications of any sort. Any social collaboration tools introduce the same complexities -- and that complexity is magnified when you have multiple systems in place.

Get realistic about communications
Those who hold a grudge against email don't have any alternatives that do what email does. That's why email is not only going to stick around but will remain the best mainstay communications tool. Here's what email does better than other communications channels, social or point-to-point:

  • The ability to filter and organize messages. That's powerful for managing the flood of emails as well as for managing the contents, such as to keep project-specific messages in one place. Too many people avoid these flood-management capabilities. My only real beef is that you can't typically set up filters at the server side, so you must replicate your filters at each client -- and mobile clients don't let you set up or run filters.
  • The ability to serve as an archive. Think about how often you go back to an earlier email. Now try that in instant messaging or a social tool.
  • The ability to work both as a point-to-point messaging tool and as a group messaging tool. Alernatives do one or the other, not both -- so you have multiple accounts to check and keep track of.
  • Compatibility with pretty much any computing device. You can check and manage email on a smartphone, computer, or website. That's not always possible in other services, leading to access gaps.
  • The ability to bring multiple accounts together. There are goood reasons to separate personal and work emails, using separate clients for each. But there are also good reasons to have one email client with email flowing into account-specific folders -- and that means less back and forth for users. Outside of BlackBerry 10's Hub and, to a lesser extent, Windows Phone's People app, you can't do that with other forms of messaging.

Of course, none of this means you should be email-only. It can make sense to have multiple channels of communications: instant messaging or wikis for project groups, Twitter and LinkedIn for self-marketing and trend scanning, Facebook for virtual get-togethers, and email for the bulk of your transactional information and acknowledgements. Even if you replace email in your business with another tool, you'll need it for communications with providers, clients, and customers, as well as to receive confirmations such as for travel reservations and account change validations -- which should make you question why you'd have two separate systems in the first place.

Email is a great technology that revolutionized communications across distances never before possible, connecting pairs of people as easily as groups and serving as a memory store at the same time. It does so in an asynchronous manner, which means the conversation can continue over time, even if not everyone is on at the same time. Nothing else does all that.

Use it for all it can do. Celebrate it. And look at other communications tools for what they do, not for a misguided, vague desire to supplant the email that works so well.

This article, "Email forever! Why social apps can't replace it," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.