Luis Suarez has been on a five-year mission to wean himself from email, and he's almost there. His message volume has slowed to a trickle of about a dozen messages per week. He uses Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and a variety of other social networks to share information that he wants others to see. As an IBM Corp. social computing evangelist, sharing is what he does. One of his favorite quotes is credited to iPadCTO founder Bill French: “Email is where knowledge goes to die.”
Suarez understood years ago what a lot of business professionals still don't realize: Email is holding back our businesses. Our addiction to the inbox prevents us from building the culture of collaboration that defines today's progressive companies.
Recent “research” by the McKinsey Global Institute found that the average office worker spends about 13 hours a week reading, writing and responding to emails. McKinsey estimated that more than a quarter of that time could be channeled into more productive work if communication shifted to social platforms and that the amount of time people spend searching for information could be slashed by 30% if so much of it wasn't locked up in email boxes.
Unfortunately, habits that go back a couple of decades are difficult to break. Most people over the age of 30 have grown up with the inbox as their home page. Like duct tape, email is a tool we apply to the wrong things because we know how to use it.
But email has so many shortcomings as a collaboration tool. It isn't shareable beyond the limited confines of distribution lists, which are themselves prone to errors, omissions and excesses. You can't tweet, bookmark or post an email to Facebook. You can't unsubscribe from a distribution list except by contacting the owner of the list directly. You can't Google an email message.
Don't even get me started on auto-complete.
Email is a drain on productivity and resources. People who need information can't get it if they aren't on the distribution list, while others who left the project long ago continue to receive updates because it's too bothersome to unsubscribe.
IT organizations struggle with the storage and bandwidth problems of large attachments that are distributed en masse. Version control is nonexistent and mostly handled by swapping revised files back and forth. In short, email is a terrible way to manage projects with more than about six people.
A collaborative culture assumes that information that isn't sensitive or proprietary should be available to anyone who might benefit from it. Public, private and semiprivate groups on social networks permit anyone to share, annotate and build upon the work of others. There's no risk that a misfired message will leak confidential information because access is controlled centrally. Document-sharing software ensures that everyone is always working with a single copy of the latest version of the document or project.
So why don't people use these tools more extensively? A big reason is email addiction. People join groups but continue to fall back to email as their primary communication tool “just in case.” We've all seen this behavior, and the only way to stop it is for project managers to insist that email updates to the group won't be read.
People like Luis Suarez are putting email in its place. I hope more people will learn from his example.