In defence of e-mail

From e-mail to Enterprise Social Software Image taken from Luis Suárez

Last weekend I attended the Evento Blog España conference in Seville, and one of the more attractive talks on the schedule was called 2.0 services and technology in business by Luis Suárez, technology evangelist at IBM.

Luis explained how he stopped using e-mail completely and replaced the functionality by a variety of web 2.0 tools, each specialized for a specific task. When he started talking, I remembered how Tim Ferriss also ‘attacked’ e-mail in his book.

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim explains how he only reads his e-mail a few times per day while an autoresponder tells the senders to use the phone instead for more urgent messages. I have read it several times, but I still can’t see where the productivity increase comes from. I’d rather check my e-mail twice a day to reduce phone calls. In my opinion, phone calls are a bigger time waster that e-mail. When someone phones you, that person decides for you that the issue he is phoning about is at that moment more important than all other issues you are working on. A phone call is almost always an interruption in your workflow, while e-mail is part of the workflow. Of course, there are times when a phone call is justified, for example when a customer is having technical problems that stopped his business. The idea is to use the right tool for the job, and in the past years I have spend quite some time explaining that the phone usually is not the right tool and that e-mail or IM for more time-dependant questions are more adequate.

Using the right tool for the job is exactly why Luis Suárez stopped using e-mail and changed it for instant messaging, wikis, blogs, rss, bookmark services, quickr, etc. In principle I agree with Luis that e-mail is not always the best tool to use, but at this moment there is a scattering problem when using web 2.0 tools. I already noticed this when I try to convince people to stop phoning me and use IM instead. There is a myriad of IM tools and protocols available, and to be able to communicate with all my customers I need ICQ, AOL, Yahoo!, Messenger, Skype and GTalk. All of them! I am a tech savvy guy, so I can handle this (all accounts are nicely accessible from one client: Digsby), but this surely is no option for many other people, who already find it very difficult to install one IM client.

Now imagine the same thing happening with all other functions of e-mail. To collaborate on a document there are dozens of services available. Of course I will choose one of them, but will me customer also use that? Of course not, they use Google Docs instead of a wiki. And as I cooperate with more people, my shared work will be shattered across the internet. I remember a customer send me a link to an interesting article, but where is it? I need to maintain a database to know that this particular customer uses Delicious to share bookmarks.

You can say a lot about e-mail. It is not the perfect tool for collaboration or status reporting. But it is a standard. Everybody has e-mail, and everybody knows how to use it. And if you work together with many customers, using web 2.0 solutions will not be an option in the majority of cases, until there will be a common protocol or tool such as Digsby for IM that allows people using different services for a functionality to cooperate.

Jeroen Sangers @jeroensangers