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The end of the e-mail centered workday

By Andrew Pollack on 07/12/2004 at 08:36 AM EDT

For some, that first e-mail account came with going off to college or business school, and that first dial-up session to some big machine you envisioned being tended by white coated lab technicians in a clean, well lit, secure facility somewhere. For others, it may have started as a bunch of mini-e-mail accounts in the form of “private” messages on your favorite bulletin board systems in the 1980’s when that was all the rage among the geek set. Maybe you got e-mail for the first time when the company you were in started using it as part of the daily routine. There are even a few of us now with the same e-mail address for more than 10 years. E-mail has gone from a geek toy to a ubiquitous business critical communication tool in less than 20 years – but recent changes in both culture and technology (and I’m not just talking about spam here) have threatened its usefulness and have started the first tremors of a major shakeup that is inexorably moving us away from the e-mail centered work day.

E-mail Culture

Once used as a mechanism for the distribution of information to a workforce, e-mail has become the very center of the knowledge worker’s day. When we send mail to someone we expect to hear back within the day -- and if not we have “out of office” auto-replies to make our apologies for us. E-mail has proved faster, less interruptive, and more easily referenced than telephone calls and with the ability to copy more than one person has replaced many meetings. It is these very attributes, however, that contain e-mail’s fatal flaw and are bringing about the massive shift in its use that I expect to see in the next few years.

The speed and ease with which we dash off quick comments to one another in the workplace; quote text from previous parts of the conversation as if it were courtroom evidence to make our points; copy other coworkers to strengthen our case; or use the implied threat made by copying someone’s boss to gain leverage or faster service has turned e-mail into a hostile, negative, pressure filled environment that cannot be ignored for a moment lest our fortunes be decided without our presence. E-mail has become the meeting we cannot miss and the threat we cannot ignore. Worse -- our misstatements, heated responses, and half considered ideas become permanent parts of our workplace selves and are passed around and brought back to us both in and out of context like unresolved barbs from an old lover’s quarrel. A friend of mine back in the 1980’s –perhaps one of the first friends I’d met on-line – once said prophetically “Ours is a medium in which our thoughts are shared in an instant and live on for an eternity.”

Seeds of its Own Destruction

The very culture which has become dependant upon e-mail has sewn the seeds of its own destruction in those self same destructive and hostile aspects with which it holds itself hostage. Recent court decisions have held that e-mail communication is not only discoverable and therefore actionable, but in some cases must be specifically archived and kept for the sole purpose of later review in the even of a lawsuit or accident. That has begun to lead to ever more strict policies about the use of e-mail in the decision making process. Those half finished ideas are now subject to review at some later date in an entirely different context. At the same time, the meeting which cannot be missed is now in conflict with the actual daily objectives that add value to the bottom line and justify the very position over which the little daily battles are fought. Simply keeping up with the massive back and forth flow of discussion has become a consuming part of the daily routine for too many otherwise highly productive people. E-mail, by its very swift yet lasting nature encourages endless argument over the smallest details. Perspective is entirely lost as all parties to a given discussion must participate at the level of the least organized and controlled in the group. The customs and rules that allow meetings to progress are entirely lost in e-mail and the work day (and frequently the day off) can quickly be consumed by endless minutia and repetition.

Better tools are emerging – or re-emerging

As e-mail disintegrates around us; used less for serious discussion lest discussion be taken for decision by some court in the future its use for quick chat is also diminishing. Live chat tools are replacing email for those topics which have less lasting value. If the issue isn’t going to be valid at least a day later, chat takes over. Its quick, it tends to be more one on one – and oddly enough consensus is easier to build. Some aspects of the personal meeting exist in chats which do not exist in e-mail. Points are clarified, objections understood, agreements reached quickly. At the same time, the weight and thought of the formal “memo” are re-entering the stage as replacements for the heavier topic e-mail based discussions. Actual documents are once again commonly passed for review and comment, and then released as completed thought rather than half finished ideas being argued. Many times documents these are passed by e-mail but there is a difference. In these cases the document has become the topic of attention and the e-mail simply a medium for transmittal. Finally, we can move back to being information focused and not mechanism focused. The document has value; the email containing it does not. The big software vendors are not ignoring this trend.

Software Firms are Looking Ahead

Both Microsoft and IBM are looking hard at these trends and trying to anticipate the larger move through the adaptation of their product lines. Both are at least talking about removing the focus of the knowledge worker from the mechanism and placing it with the content. Document centric systems are emerging. Microsoft is pushing for a user manageable shared space where a person can share information in the form of documents, images, and multi-media with a variety of people, groups, and individuals with varying levels of visibility – a “person-up-to-group” approach while IBM seems to be moving toward a more central mechanism that favors “group-out-to-person” as a paradigm.

Whichever direction ends up being dominant, with the low end chatter of e-mail replaced by chat and the higher value content moving back to formal document practices, the future of the desktop looks very different tomorrow.

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