Email – Good Enough Isn’t!

If I was honest with you, I would admit that I read with glee the flurry of news reports noting that Facebook and other Web 2.0 media (such as Twitter, Yammer, and Friendfeed) had surpassed email as the preferred form of communication particularly for teens and young adults today. If you pardon the pun, the inner geek in me let out a loud Yahoo!

For years I have been struggling with the notion that email had become the place to work for many lawyers. It seemed that a bad technology had taken root to the point that it would be hard to dislodge; even when there are better ways to do things out there. I know it is hard for many of us to think about email as a legacy application – but guess what, folks, it is.

The problem with email is also its strength – it is simple to operate / use and costs very little to send messages around the globe in a matter of seconds. Indeed, email is an improvement over previous technologies such as Telex (for those of us old enough to remember choosing every word carefully when sending a message to an overseas office) and fax (which I never thought would be dislodged) became a “good enough” form of communication for quite a few years. An analysis of fax traffic shows that this is no longer the preferred means of sharing documents and information between and within organizations. Now email seems to be heading in the same direction.

So what is the problem with email? There are several problems. First, we are using email for a number of secondary purposes – some of which have become the primary purposes. The primary purpose of email was as a communication system for moving ‘messages’ from one point to another. As with many technologies, secondary (unintended) uses emerged. These secondary purposes include email as:

    Personal Information Manager – people send themselves emails as a way of making notes to file

    Records Management facility – since correspondence comes in via email mostly today and very little of is comes in through the post office, many people use email as their replacement for the filing cabinet. Although I know many people who still print and file emails in hard copy.

    Personal Document Management facility – after all, the folder structure in most email clients.

    Contact Manager – many of us do not have complete contact details for people we know. After all, having their email address is enough, isn’t it?

    Task Manager – many emails are requests to staff and others to carry out specific tasks.

I doubt the creators of this application had all of these things in mind. While some may look at this and consider email to be ‘a success’, I am suggesting it is a failure. Anyone with a 15 Gigabyte Outlook PST file knows the concept of ‘having all of your eggs in one basket’. Many in that situation have probably had IT call them to ask them to clean it out.

Earlier, I reviewed the book Keeping Found Things Found. For this discussion, I would direct you to spend more time with the chapter on email which reinforced for me many of the things I have been thinking about over the years. While many consider email a successful application, the overuse of this tool has created a few problems. The authors of that book highlight two things in what they call “the one–two punch” that is associated with email: information overload and information fragmentation. Most of us understand information overload; however, fragmentation is an interesting concept. In the same way personal computers spread corporate data over many machines – email clients spread corporate information / records over several inboxes and personal folders without the discipline required across the organization. Finally, they posit two possible futures for email: email takes over as our primary information and task manager; or, email disappears and is replaced by better suited tools. Make no mistake, I am cheering for the second of these two alternatives and hoping that we arrive at a better place.

I remember attending a session a few years ago in Colorado with a number of law firm CIOs where email management moved from nowhere on their radar to their number one issue in less than a year. Email management is a problem for all organizations – not just law firms – also think electronic discovery. Perhaps we can explore this in more detail in a future posting; but for now, let’s realize that this is a broad topic that focuses on everything from managing the correspondence records that arrive and leave our organizations as email to enforcing policies on email content.

We seem to forget that we have an array of communication tools available. We would not play a round of golf using only our driver. So why do we use one tool for communications? We have heard of colleagues sitting in adjacent offices using email to communicate when they could talk to each other. We also hear stories of people forgetting to use the phone for conversations that would be best suited to that technology.

The PIM concept is a result of product design from tools such as Outlook which try to do everything for the user. With a bit of defense for my friends at Microsoft, I like the concept they were floating a couple of years ago by promoting a range of communications tools from Instant Messaging (IM) to email to the ability to have a LiveMeeting (even one-on-one) and telephone (think Voice over IP) or video conferencing calls. Each of these has their uses and affordances. I think they had it right with this array of tools – however part of the problem they face is the problem of dislodging the legacy tools (Outlook) they have sold so well into the enterprise.

Before I close, allow me a confession. I use Gmail as my replacement for Outlook. Why? I like to be able to access all of these email records from anywhere / any machine. I also like the search and tagging capabilities built into to Gmail and the ability to read email from various POP3 servers thereby maintaining my various email identities. Notwithstanding that, it suffers from the same problems mentioned earlier.

So, what would I like to see? I am happy to see that at least part of the population recognizes that social media / networking tools provide better ways for us to communicate. Coupled with blogs, wikis and other web 2.0 tools there is hope that as these tools get better and users realize email is not the ‘be all and end all’ we will embrace other ways of communicating with each other. Some good strides have been made under the umbrella of email management. I hope we continue to make progress.

I encourage you to think about the alternatives we have and champion them. Think also about the new millennials coming into our organizations and their expectations, and also what we can learn from their use of technology.


  1. I suspect one of the reasons why email has fallen into so many of these roles that might be better served by other solutions is that just about everyone knows how to use it.

    It’s difficult to make people use the best tool for the job when they’re barely comfortable with the one tool they really know how to use. It’s also difficult to have people who are not that comfortable with computers learn how to use several different technologies – no matter how much better suited they may be to the task.