Email is slowly dying. No, really it is

Stephen Waddington is partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor at Newcastle University.

A story about cake and internal agency communication. Technology is easy, changing behaviour is much harder.

I reached a personal milestone last week. The moment passed without any great celebration but it was important nonetheless.

London was stunning in the heat of July as I travelled back and forth across the city on foot, by bike and riverboat. My Thursday consisted of a mix of client meetings, mentoring, writing and a couple of social catch-ups.

I spent about half my time at my desk, the other half darting in and out of coffee shops to get my fix of caffeine, Wi-Fi and cake. Whilst city suits melted in the heat I was grateful to work for an enlightened firm where middle-aged blokes wearing shorts aren’t so much openly accepted as tolerated.

Late in the day I realised that I’d sent and received more messages at work via Facebook at Work, iMessenger and WhatsApp, than I had via email.

No big deal you might think. Have another slice of cake you might say. And yes, please I think I will. But wait. Email is has been a cornerstone of work for 25 years. Could it finally be on the wane?

Not so social internal communications

The change may have been slow but in the past six months it seems to have gathered pace. I no longer have an email application open constantly on my computer for example.

So I’m calling it. During the remainder of this decade we’ll see a terminal decline in email as organisations finally start to adopt social technologies and find smarter, multi-channel, ways to work.

I realise a sample size of one is a little small but there’s a clear pattern.

The adoption of social media for internal communication within organisations has been tediously slow. Whereas the web went social in 2005, internal communications largely remains fixed in time. Intranets have been used as internal fileservers or websites to serve corporate announcements and human resources content.

Tools such as Jive, Slack and Yammer have made some inroads for conversations and improved workflow, yet email remains dominant form of communication.

Productivity tool promotes bad behaviour

Email benefited from the similarities with traditional forms of correspondence such as fax and letter. It’s immediate, has zero cost to the sender, and generates an audit trail. Everything is in one place.

But it also promotes bad behaviour. I mean really bad. Hands up who has received bloated email attachments, email overload, spam, copy all nonsense, blind copy abuse, messages with ambiguous meanings, and even email rage. And that’s only this morning.

Email and its one size fits usage is frustrating. It’s daft when technology is so easy. We’ve had social networks for more than ten years but adoption by enterprises has been incredibly slow.

Personal to professional

We’re seeing a change driven by people. A growing wave of employees are driving consumer technology into organisations. It started with devices such as smart phone and tablets.

Now software tools such as Facebook at Work, iMessenger, Skype and WhatsApp are shifting from our personal lives to professional lives.

People are using their own technology to work smarter and they’re taking it upon themselves to separate out their communication into the most relevant channels.

My own organisation’s adoption of Facebook at Work started with the insight that different communities within our organisation were using private Facebook groups to communicate across offices and markets. Since then it’s taken off like a sky rocket. There is a strong demand for this stuff.

Internal communication wants to be free

In 2016 I think we’ve finally reached that tipping point where the blurring of personal and work lives means peak email has been and gone - multi-channel internal communication is now real and email is on its way out.

The fact that this has taken so long says something rather sad about the way business has regarded and tried to control internal communication all these years. It clearly wants to be free.

Stephen Waddington is chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor in practice at Newcastle University. He tweets @wadds

Search The Drum Jobs

Explore the best jobs in Marketing and Media industries
View all open jobs
SW

Stephen Waddington

All by Stephen