Is the email yesterday’s work communications tool?

The battle is on among tech firms to dominate the enterprise communications sector, estimated at US $10 billion a year

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 August, 2017, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 August, 2017, 10:02pm

It’s a dreaded word that we often hear in offices in Hong Kong, and indeed around the world – email.

Some workers like to play a competition after they return from holiday, and compete for the largest inbox.

The first working email system in 1971 and the first message – “QWERTY” – have since created a deluge of messages, which has turned email into a villain at work. This in turn has spawned a set of enterprise tools to deal with it. Alas, many of current set of enterprise tools are poorly suited to this changing world of work.

More than 30 years after its introduction, email remains the dominant form of enterprise communication. When it was first introduced, email replaced the phone (which required two people to be available at the same time) and allowed people in organisations to communicate and collaborate asynchronously.

Ubiquitous and convenient email has now become a major impediment to enterprise productivity. The average user receives or sent 125 emails and the average worker in the US spends 30 hours a week checking email.

This might be fine if emails allowed people to work effectively, but it is increasingly not the case. Email is a one to one (or one to a few) form of communication – meaning that it is difficult to share and spread across the organisation. It’s also poorly integrated with other enterprise systems and tools. When someone emails you a document to edit you need to jump out to another software to update it.

As far back as 2012, global consulting firm McKinsey’s estimated that enterprise social networking and collaboration tools could increase productivity by between 20 and 25 per cent. These platforms use chat to create one to many communications, so that a larger number of people than those copied on an email trail can be kept up to date with what is going on.

They make it possible for you to keep track of lots of different conversations and to opt out of those that are not important to you. They also make enterprise communications searchable and taggable, so it is much easier to access existing organisational knowledge.

Let’s think about how the consumer market works, with social media platforms and messaging apps fundamentally changing the way we interact with our family, friends and the rest of the world.

There is also an increasing percentage of millennials entering the workforce, and they are used to working without email.

Right now, in the enterprise space there is a multibillion dollar war taking place between software companies to replace email and to become the backbone for new and more productive ways of working.

There is an increasing percentage of millennials entering the workforce, and they are used to working without email

The early leader in this battle is Slack, a cloud based communications platform. Slack was originally developed to support communications between developers of an online game called Glitch. The game failed but, in what might be the most successful pivot ever, Slack soon became the fastest growing enterprise software in history.

Launched in February 2014, by 2017 it had 2 million individual users and 950,000 paid seats and that its platform was being used by 77 per cent of the Fortune 100 companies.

Add to this the large number of integrations with other software packages and services offered, Slack and its rivals become not just communications platform but the place where you can do all or most of your work and collaborate with others.

But Slack no longer has the market to itself. Australian startup Atlassian’s Hipchat competes directly with Slack (although it offers integrated video calling and screen sharing).

The giant software company Atlassian started with students at UNSW Sydney who thought there must be a better way for teams to communicate. And they created a tool to do that.

In 2016 Facebook launched its version of Facebook for work, Workplace, and most recently enterprise software giant Microsoft introduced its own Slack clone, Teams. The stage is now set for an epic battle between these companies to dominate enterprise communications and an estimated US $10 billion a year market.

But just having these tools and platforms in place won’t automatically prepare you and your organisation for success in the new world of work. It also requires new ways of working and a different type of organisational culture.

Firstly, these systems require transparency. They also work against hierarchy. To be effective, they require everyone to be equal and to be prepared to work in the same way.

The most successful adoption of enterprise communications platform cases are underlined by leaders who model the types of behaviours on these platforms as they would want to see in their organisations.

Without this leadership, these platforms will end up going the way of myspace and we will be left with bulging inboxes and organisations that can’t collaborate and innovate.

However, contemporary organisations remain highly siloed. People work in different departments or divisions and increasingly in different locations and countries. At the same time, many of the things that organisations are trying to achieve require individuals and teams to work across organisational boundaries.

As routine tasks in organisations are becoming increasingly automated or outsourced, the real work of an organisation is about creating new value and this involves higher levels of creativity and collaboration.

As we enter the gig economy, and workers stay with a company for a short time to get the job done, perhaps stop and think that maybe the entire structure of your firm could do with a shakeup.

Nick Wailes is the Associate Dean Digital and Innovation at UNSW Business School

Additional words: Julian Lorkin