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E-Mail Is So Five Minutes Ago


Darren Lennard is a managing director in the London offices of European-based investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. He became something of a creative-class everyman a month ago when, after a long and onerous day at the office, he plucked his hyperactive BlackBerry from his silk-lined pocket and proceeded to smash it on the gleaming granite countertop of his London home.

As if an explanation is necessary. The analytically gifted investment banker had morphed into a zombie-faced thumb man, wheeling through his engorged in-box as his last activity before going to bed and his first upon waking. The time squandered on his electronic mistress made his brain reel. Of the 250 e-mails he received each day, he says "85% were totally not important to my job." Think that ratio of e-waste sounds depressing? It gets worse. Legitimate e-mail will drop to 8% this year, down from 12% last year, according to Redwood City (Calif.) e-mail filtering outfit Postini Inc.

BLOW-OFF FACTOR

What makes Lennard's e-mail outburst unique is that it was embraced by his superiors. J.P. Rangaswami, Dresdner's global chief information officer, is among a growing group of experts dedicated to slaying the unwieldy electronic blob. The cc: button? "Cover your asses," says Rangaswami, sounding less like a suit than a tattooed text punk. "...And bcc:, that's, like, almost evil. People can hide and have these sneaky little private conversations. Ludicrous!"

Indeed, the onetime productivity wonder has turned into a maddening time waster. Despite the brawniest corporate filters, more than 60% of what swarms into corporate in-boxes is spam. Since so much of what's received involves scams about millions languishing in nonexistent bank accounts, interoffice status contests, and people plopping unwanted meetings onto Outlook calendars, the e-mail blow-off factor is rising. That's imperiling the medium's former dependability. In the long run, perhaps the biggest death knell for e-mail is the anthropological shift occurring among tomorrow's captains of industry, the text-messaging Netgens (16-to-24-year-olds), for whom e-mail is so "ovr," "dn," "w/e (over, done, whatever)."

No surprise, then, that on Rangaswami's orders, e-mail at Dresdner is beginning to fade as the collaboration tool of choice. Instead, workers there, as well as at places like Walt Disney (), Eastman Kodak (), Yahoo! (), and even the U.S. military, are ditching e-mail in favor of other software tools that function as real-time virtual workspaces. Among them: private workplace wikis (searchable, archivable sites that allow a dedicated group of people to comment on and edit one another's work in real time); blogs (chronicles of thoughts and interests); Instant Messenger (which enables users to see who is online and thus chat with them immediately rather than send an e-mail and wait for a response); RSS (really simple syndication, which lets people subscribe to the information they need); and more elaborate forms of groupware such as Microsoft Corp.'s () SharePoint, which allows workers to create Web sites for teams' use on projects.

Though the likeliest scenario is that e-mail will remain the prime tool for notification and one-to-one communication, "a huge percentage of collaboration will occur outside of e-mail, with a continued rise in these other tools," says Clay Shirky, associate teacher in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University. "There's an enormous untapped value to be gotten by getting collaboration right."

KILLER WIKIS

Although all these tools are gaining momentum, it's easy-to-use and practically free wikis that proponents say offer the promise of collaboration beyond e-mail, even though big editing kinks remain and other quirks and security flaws are sure to surface. Internet research firm Gartner Group predicts that wikis will become mainstream collaboration tools in at least 50% of companies by 2009. At Ann Arbor (Mich.)-based Soar Technology Inc., an artificial-intelligence company that works on projects for the Office of Naval Research, wikis enable the company to slash in half the time it takes to complete projects. Soar engineer Jacob Crossman says that's because the wikis eliminate the usual flurry of back-and-forth attachments and resulting document-version confusion that's rife in e-mail. At Dresdner, Rangaswami says that among the earliest and most aggressive adopters, e-mail volume on related projects is down 75%; meeting times have been whacked in half.

None of this is to imply, however, that e-mail is on its way to floppy disk-dom. It has certainly come under threat before. The Lotus Notes juggernaut of the early 1990s never displaced e-mail. Nor did attempts to build collaborative platforms during the boom. But this time may be different, Rangaswami and other experts say, because e-mail has hit a wall, creating an impenetrable scale of conversations people don't need to be a part of and shipping around mounds of information they can't possibly digest. What was intended as a point-to-point communication tool has been stretched into a broadcast medium.

That's what Darren Lennard is beginning to grasp at Dresdner. Instead of chatting via e-mail, Lennard now uses the bank's own version of Instant Messenger. Projects are also more efficient. Recently, Lennard wanted an analysis of how to double profits on a particular trade. Instead of shooting copies of the same document to several people via an e-mail attachment, only to have to keep track of, merge, and archive all the fixes back into a central version, he threw the problem up on a wiki page where everyone could brainstorm, comment, and edit in real time. In the space of two days, entire e-mail conversations evaporated and Lennard had analytics that would have otherwise taken two weeks. Next year's budget practically wrote itself on the wiki page.

Something very Wisdom of Crowds was happening. It was as if everyone could Google () everyone else's brain. "The first thing they teach you at Harvard or Yale business school is that it's important to have efficient, open disclosure," says Lennard. "It's just that, as a team, we didn't have the tools to practice these amazing concepts until now."

This kind of open-source, bottom-up workplace is exactly what Rangaswami envisions. So far, companies have invested 95% of their spending in business processes, according to Social Life of Information author and former Xerox Corp. () Palo Alto Research Center director John Seely Brown. A scant 5% has gone toward supporting ways to mine a corporation's human capital. That's why fans say the beyond-e-mail workplace will become a key competitive advantage. In the global race for innovation, it's not as much about leveraging what's inside your factories' machines as what's in your employees' heads.

By Michelle Conlin


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