Email isn't dead or on life support, it's alive and well in the business world. Email use is changing, I'll give you that, but I find myself reading and listening to people talk about how social is replacing email in the enterprise a lot lately. Trust me, it's not true (how about you, is your inbox significantly smaller than it was 2 years ago?), nor does it make any sense really. I've written about this before, this sponsored white paper for IBM, and a couple of posts here and here. The problem with email is not that it's not the proper tool for certain types of business communications, it's that email is used for many activities for which it was not designed, and in general it is overused to the point that most people feel inundated and overwhelmed by the volume. There are two threads to look at here, the business use of email and the private use of email and each thread is changing but in different ways.
Let's start with personal use of email. Personal email use is, at least based on all of the recent survey data I've seen, slowly declining. This shouldn't really be a surprise though, as social network use has increased the messaging systems, particularly on Facebook, have replaced the need for many types of personal email. Add to that the increased use of SMS, IM like Skype and Google Chat and it's easy to see that for many types of personal online interaction, email is actually a step out of the online environments where most of us spend the greatest part of our online time. In particular younger "digital natives" tend to shun email as old fashion. For my two teenage daughters if I need to email them something I would always send a txt message or a message on Facebook to check email, otherwise they check it erratically if at all. They also don't really have the same boundary "breaks" that I see in adults when it comes to online conversations. I've observed them carry on conversations with friends for hours, seamlessly changing "channels" of communication without missing a single part of the thread. What starts on Instagram could move to Facebook in real time, to SMS, to other IM, etc. and for them, it's all one continuous conversation.
Business use of email on the other hand, is not declining and is in fact growing at a steady single digit pace. As I've written before, there are just some things that email does better than IM, enterprise social networks (ESNs) with activity streams, file sharing (like Box and Sharepoint) or any other online tool. When it comes to interoperability outside the firewall, nothing beats email. For one to one or one to few secure communications, email is the best online tool again. What I am seeing in many companies that effectively implement an ESN, is freeing up of email from broadcasts / announcements, conversations, collaborative file sharing, collaborative work, etc. Use of email in an absolute seat basis is increasing but in some companies we've talked to, volume is declining. This is important to the overall goal of making email more manageable and off loading tasks to tools that are more suitable for the job.
For this off loading of tasks to more appropriate systems to continue / accelerate there are several areas where the other systems must continue to improve. I'd say the biggest challenge for any business communication tool is intelligent filtering, improved search, highly configurable notifications and context awareness. This is particularly true of ESNs, where the social tool for communication is mostly an activity stream. The word stream is appropriate and if the "current" is to strong it would be easy for critical information to flow right on by the people it's intended to reach. Having the ability to configure and use filtering that "learns" from your activities over time is one way to get important and relevant information in the correct hands, as are notifications that are controlled and set by each individual based on his/her information needs. Context aware information is an even more powerful concept, although currently it's not really technically widely available. As the ability for information to become "smart" increases the capability of the system to present relevant information to the correct employees and at the time of need would relieve a great deal of the current burden created by the increasing volume of data. Search is also a very important tool for employees to get to relevant information when needed. This is true in email clients as well as activity streams / ESNs and other communication and sharing tools.
Seamless conversations is an interesting concept that I suppose has roots in the unified communications (UC) activities of the past several years. It's not a hardware problem though, but as UC becomes more software focused it's possible to more easily solve the problem of how to easily move conversations across channels. This includes automating presence and availability. Taking this further I think that we eventually need to get to a federated or consolidated client that pulls all online communications channels into a single UI, presumably in the ESN. While several companies including IBM and Microsoft are working in this direction we have some way to go technically before it's a reality.
Lastly I suppose there is the other wide use of email, that is, for high volume broadcast marketing (hopefully highly targeted and personalized, but personally the vendors that send me email are not particularly good at targeting). The volume of marketing email continues to rise. It's not surprising, there's really not a great alternative to it, and yet, the more it grows the less effective it is overall. Permission based email marketing is a great concept, but it falls down on targeting and shear volume. I now have one inbox that's so overloaded with marketing emails that I don't even check it anymore. Unfortunately my main personal inbox is also starting to see quite a lot of marketing emails. Now I wouldn't, at least for the most part call it spam (my gmail spam filter does a pretty good job there). But even for brands that I've given permission I find that I often delete the email unread. I get a lot of email and frankly the marketing emails are probably just too much. I do read some, but the subject MUST be compelling and I need to know that the targeting is at least reasonably accurate. I'm often surprised at how bad companies with massive amounts of my transaction data are still at targeting (Amazon, please pay attention). Now there's a good argument for why socialytics and analytics have to get better and companies have to use that information to individualize each customers' experience.
So what do you think, is email on life support? Is your company trying to replace email with other new social tools? Are you being successful? Leave me a comment, I'd love to get some more examples in either direction.