The email-free future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

It’s over five years since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg predicted email is probably going away, and yet I returned from holiday this week to a bulging inbox. So what went wrong?

Here I explain why email alternatives haven’t yet made the breakthrough — and what needs to happen to really see an end to inefficient email culture.

Underestimated the need for culture change

Cultural barriers in moving from email to enterprise social have been wildly underestimated. Email has had a long (20 year +) period of dominance, and has found its way into a vast range of tasks (many of which it’s inappropriate for, but nonetheless). Old habits die hard, and email is quite some habit — taking up 28% of employee time. Intranet expert Sam Marshall once commented that only two things will survive a nuclear winter — cockroaches, and email.

Email, for all its faults, offers privacy, preservation of silos and hierarchy, and the hoarding of knowledge — all things which fit with traditional ways of managing business. For enterprise social networks to really make a difference they need to form part of a massive change management programme — one that sees the ESN as a small part of a change to make the organisation fit for the future.

If an organisation is serious about embracing openness, meritocracy, flexibility and collaborative working, as a means of making itself more agile and innovative, and engaging its people, then an ESN will enable that. But the organisation needs to lead that change — the tool is merely a means of delivery, and can’t be seen as the culture change itself.

Few organisations have done this successfully yet. Most have barely started. But as hardly a day now passes without another news story about how traditional industries and business models are being disrupted by smaller, newer players — firms who are already embracing those values and working in open, collaborative and innovative ways — big business has to adapt or die. That culture change isn’t a nice to have: it’s existential.

The tools sucked

Back in 2010, the tools to go email-free just weren’t widespread enough; few enterprises had rolled them out, and where they had they were found wanting. Let’s be blunt here: they sucked compared to what was available on the web.

Enterprise social tools lacked powerful enough functionality to make people ditch their long-held habits. They were typically rolled out organically, which meant they relied heavily on enthusiasts and failed to gain critical mass.

All that has changed, though. Social intranet products such as Sharepoint, Jive and IBM Connections have continued to grow and evolve their functionality. At the same time, products like Salesforce, Oracle and SAP have moved on from token inclusion of social functionality to offering fully social systems. And a host of new entrants like Slack have come along to shake the whole enterprise collaboration market up, forcing everyone to raise their game.

The current crop of enterprise social tools now offer substantial and realistic alternatives to email with functionality and usability that are as good as anything offered to consumers.

The challenge, then, is ensuring the organisation has the right tool or set of tools. And that means focusing on user needs…

Lacked understanding of user needs

Too many intranet projects are conceived and designed from the corporate centre, designed without a detailed understanding of how, when and why people work — so that social fits the way people work, rather than expecting people to change the way they work to use social tools.

In this (old) blogpost, Andrew McAfee suggests that the continued use of email when superior alternatives are available is an example of the 9x problem. That is, that people are generally averse to change, so they overvalue what they have by a factor of three, and undervalue alternatives by 3x. So something needs to not just be better than the alternative for people to be convinced to change, but it needs to be 9x better.

The number one driver of adoption is utility. Intranet and digital workplace professionals need first to understand what people do and how they work — and why they use email — then select and configure tools so they provide a compelling alternative — one that users perceive as genuinely useful enough to be worth investing their time in learning.

Poor integration

All too often social intranets are yet another in the plethora of workplace portals, presenting users with a hot mess of interfaces and user experiences. It’s no surprise that people reached for the comfort blanket of Microsoft Outlook.

Email dominates because it’s familiar, and it’s made its way into almost everything we do at work. Email doesn’t force people to think about what tool to use — and nor should your digital workplace. The current generation of enterprise social tools are easy and cheap to integrate with each other, and with other systems. Crack that and present a coherent, integrated digital workplace that doesn’t require users to think, and you reduce the barriers to change.

Too inward looking

Finally, they didn’t extend beyond the firewall, forcing people to go back to email if they want to collaborate with anyone outside of the organisation. In this day and age collaboration can’t just be inward-looking; it will necessarily involve third parties like agencies — and ideally customers too.

With most vendors offering robust cloud-based solutions, there’s no longer a need to limit collaboration to inside the firewall, nor to force people to go back to email to collaborate externally.

The future

These five factors can explain why predictions about the imminent demise of email have failed to come true. While the tools have improved markedly, implementations must focus on user needs so that users feel social tools are substantial and realistic alternatives to email.

As William Gibson commented, the future is here… it’s just not evenly distributed yet. While the tools now exist to deliver on Sheryl Sandberg’s prediction of an email-free future, without significant investment in culture change email will persist.

Photo credit: Daniel Voyager