Email Ain’t Dead, but It Sure Ain’t Healthy or, ‘Why Stop at Zero.’

Think about your day today. How much time did you spend on email? No matter what your answer, the result is the same: too much. Admit it. We all spend too much time on email. Me too. There are days when I go home later in the day, dispirited, realizing that I spent 4, 5, up to 6 hours a day answering emails, like a reactive animal in Skinner box, answering the torrent of emails as they come in, going home feeling as if I’ve been busy all day, but have accomplished very little.

From handwritten letters, to typewriters, to word processors, to PCs, to email. And beyond.

I am old enough to remember the days of analogue. One summer I worked in an insurance adjuster’s office, where part of my job was opening physical letters, in envelopes. Each one was catalogued in a book, and then punch-holed and put into a binder after it was answered. The cost of sending a letter, and of answering, was high. If you made a mistake when writing a physical letter, you had to physically paint over the mistake with a special white ink known to old people as ‘liquid paper.’ I can still smell it now, a bit like the acetone of nail polish remover. If you’re too young to remember these days, let me tell you: it was a pain in the ass.

I believe that email, like many other current features of our digital life, is a remnant of an analogue world. We took the letter, which cost a lot to write, both in time and in money, and translated it to email, which could be dashed off in a second, cost nothing to send, and where mistakes were erased without effort. The cost, unfortunately, was paid by the receiver, who still had to open, filter, process, and sometimes respond.

Another problem with email, is the amount of latency it introduces. When I ask the members of my team about the results of a task that requires a counterpart, nothing frustrates me more than the answer, ‘I sent an email, and I’m waiting for an answer.’ My response is nearly always, ‘perhaps you can pick up the phone?’ This is latency. Latency is basically delay. Latency is what happens between sending an email, and getting an answer.

I heard an episode from the best tech podcast in the world last week featuring a vignette from a legendary session at Google. Executives had been pushing developers to push the latency in Google Search down from one second, to fractions of a second, to nanoseconds. A frustrated engineer stood up and asked one of the founders, ‘how far are you going to push us? What happens when we get to zero?’ The answer? “Why stop at zero.”

The point was that just as you can anticipate a friend’s sneeze and hand them a tissue before it happens, so too could Google’s Artificial Intelligence eventually be able to anticipate your needs demands, and give you what you searched for before you even knew you were searching for it. There are doubtless problems and challenges here, but there’s no doubt that the latency in email is a holdover from the much greater latency of snail mail, and that the next iteration will reduce this latency even further. I doubt that I’ll push my team to get latency below zero. Even in my own business of professional disaster response, where speed is of the essence, we have to prepared for a little bit of latency. But we’ve got to do better than email.

I, too, am remnant of an analogue world. Digital natives don’t have the memory of letters, nor are any of the time-costing niceties of email — the ‘Dears’ and ‘Hope this finds you wells’ and ‘Best regards’ that take as much time to write as to decode — of any use to them. I’m convinced that in just a few years, we’ll see, if not the death of email, then a drastically reduced use of email, in different forms, as faster, more nimbler forms of communication take place, with lower latency and whose cost of sending and receiving correspond to their value. That’s why I’m ditching email.

Paperwork? What paperwork?

I read somewhere recently that 100% goals are the best kind, and that made inherent sense. For my team, this year, the goal is a 100% reduction in email. We’ve enlisted the communications experts from Tokerød Plus to help us learn how to use an alternative, and from the 1st of January , 2017, internal email on the 10-person humanitarian response team of DanChurchAid — spread across four countries — will be dead. Unless we’re communicating with an outside stakeholder, we’re going to be using a collaborative chat platform. If you’re in software development, you’re probably already using Slack, or IRC, Let’s Chat, Mattermost, or Yammer. We’re just catching up.

There will doubtless be other changes as we spring into what many are calling the ‘Digital Transformation’ initiative at DanChurchAid. There are holdovers from the analogue world everywhere, and I believe that each and every one is an anachronism. The only question is, how far will we go? Files on a computer are just digital versions of the analogue filing cabinets we old people still remember. Most of them disappeared from the modern office long ago. Documents themselves may disappear sometime soon; the ad agencies that we’ve worked with recently only deal in slide decks. And what about slides, and slide presentations? Most people born after 1980 have likely never even seen an actual slide or a carousel slide projector (apart from that legendary Mad Men episode). You’re doubtless familiar with Prezi, but I’m thrilled to see what the digital natives cook up when they finally get the chance to share information via digital visual media that are truly digital, rather than analogue carry-overs. Just ask any digital native what ‘cc’ stands for; none of them know. The analogue holdovers are everywhere.

For now? I’m just looking forward to the day when I can spend very, very little time on email.

Postscript: That Feeling When You Realize You Have No Original Thoughts

I had initially written this blog in December of last year. I went looking for a photo to accompany the article, then I realized that the blog I’d written, ‘The Death of Email,’ had already been written by about a dozen other people. Five years ago. In fact, the ground had been so well covered that there were even a slew of other blogs that subsequently responded to the original thesis, claiming that the ‘death of email’ phenomenon was overhyped. Harumph. In despair I let my blog languish on my ‘desktop’ (yes, another analogue anachronism.)

And then, in the wake of my despair, we went ahead and killed email anyway. That’s right, killed it dead. At least, email for internal collaboration. If someone on my team now writes an email, my Outlook Rule is this: ‘sent only to me, by someone on my team; send an autoreply’: “Send it on Yammer, I’m not reading this mail.” Our goals? Less time spent on email. More open, seamless communication. Less latency in replies. More time spent on achieving outcomes, rather than feeding processes. More conscious choice of the comms channels we choose.

We took a week out of our worklife and huddled together as a team, in real life. Apart from 3 days of planning, strategy and analysis, and another three learning security management, self defense, and treating catastrophic bleeding from the amazing guys at SILC, we also got absolutely brilliant guidance, advice, and inspiration on becoming a digital workplace thanks to Harald Tokerød, the founder of Tokerød plus and a digital leader in Denmark.

In addition to slaying email, we also learned about working out loud, as well as exploring the MS 365 universe a bit more, dipping our toes into the features and apps we had but hadn’t known existed. We also unpacked our use of Skype, What’sApp, and yes, even email, and Harald is developing an action plan for our team. It was full of surprises, including more use of short videos to communicate internally and externally, as well as the use of Twitter in ways we never anticipated (and this is coming from someone who uses Tweetdeck, and found his own Innovation and Tech Manager only through the use of an #ict4d hashtag. Digital Darwinism, indeed.)

Our Digital Transformation is also kicking off, not just for the DCA disaster response team, but for the entire organization. I can’t wait to get started. And our lastest hire to support this effort is a project management and technology rock star who I’m absolutely thrilled to start working with, in part because I know she’s going to ask us all to step up our game.

So perhaps I’m not the first person to reflect on the death of email. Original thoughts are hard to come by, especially for Gen X’ers. And perhaps it’s not really about the ‘death’ of email at all, but how we’re all going to be using email differently — and less — than we used to. The bigger story, for me, is about this unique moment in our collective history, when our digital tools and mindset are still based on analogue world, a world that is fast disappearing.