E-mail was never designed for most of today’s purposes, yet it is the internet’s most enduring “killer application”. We can’t live without it, but we can’t manage it either. What are the alternatives, and why aren’t we using them yet?

In 2003 researchers at Xerox PARC observed staff in three organisations and noticed it had become the “habitat” of choice for most knowledge workers, who used it as their main tool for scheduling, collaborating, and transferring files. They concluded it was so overloaded and so widely co-opted for inappropriate uses that “serial-killer application” would be a better description.

It is hard to believe, but it is almost 40 years old. Unsurprisingly it has shortcomings: spam, security, archiving and asynchronicity being just a few. Yet it is still the tool most people use to communicate and collaborate at work. For its billion or more users, part of its enduring attraction is its flexibility and informality, says Nikos Drakos, a research director at Gartner, the IT research group. “People can use e-mail to reach anyone. When they’re making it available, they have a degree of control that says ‘I will only make it available to you and you’ – it’s a kind of access control mechanism. And it’s semi-private.”

But the advantages have also led to over-use. Most people use it for tasks for which it was never intended – filing, planning, collaborating and sharing knowledge. The prediliction for using e-mail in this way has led to concerns about knowledge being “trapped in e-mail”.

Few would claim it is the perfect tool for communications. But although the over-use phenomenon was first noticed at least 10 years ago, attempts to improve it, or develop alternatives – and, importantly, to get people to use them – have proved difficult.

Arduous legal and regulatory record-keeping requirements have made it inevitable that archiving has been one of the big growth areas in e-mail management. Spam and viruses have also been a significant distraction but the consensus is that filtering technologies are now effective enough for most organisations to protect their staff from excessive spam.

And although its use is growing unabated (IDC estimated 22,000bn messages will be sent this year, compared with 19,000bn last year) growth in spam as a proportion of the total is slowing. Instead, it is “occupational spam” – legitimate messages that are unnecessary, unclear, or too widely circulated – that has become the scourge of knowledge workers.

Individual habits can go some way towards reducing occupational spam. On the recipient’s side, filters can be used to direct certain types of messages automatically – such as those that are meant for someone else and only copied – into specific mailboxes. A popular list of tactics for both recipients and senders, written by Stever Robbins, a Harvard Business School graduate, makes suggestions such as writing detailed subject lines; judicious forwarding and limiting the checking of e-mail to several times a day.

But people are slow to change their habits. Nicolas Ducheneaut and Victoria Bellotti, two Xerox PARC researchers, found that even filters and search functions – features that have long been included in widely-used programs such as Microsoft Outlook – were used by only a minority because many people simply did not understand how they worked.

Similarly, the longer people used it, the more likely they were to organise e-mails into folders, despite this being a fairly inefficient measure.

Mr Drakos recommends the use of filters and good etiquette, but says the scope for solving overload is limited. “The main thing is to stop using e-mail for things it’s not meant for,” he says.

The recent history of collaboration software is littered with examples of large, sophisticated and often expensive tools that seek to sideline e-mail and address “knowledge management” or “content management”. Mr Drakos says some of these have been less useful than hoped because staff simply continue to use e-mail for its informality and relative privacy (although he adds that the alternative tools can still often prove useful for record management and legislative compliance).

Michael Muller, a scientist with IBM’s Watson Research Center, has been involved in numerous projects to design and test ways of collaborating. Mr Muller, an expert in “participatory design” with a PhD in cognitive psychology, recalls an early attempt at a replacement called the Coordinator.

“The idea was to allow people to negotiate commitments: who would do what, and when,” he says.

But it didn’t work, partly because it only provided for the formalised: “will you do this?”; “yes I will”; etc. It did not allow people to say “how are your children?” or “it’s a nice day today”.

More recently, he was also involved in testing ActivityExplorer, an IBM product that supports collaboration linked to different messages, files and other objects, and attempts to offer a user-friendly alternative.

The programme was envisaged as supporting projects lasting a week, but a group of 33 interns who used it over 15 weeks surprised Mr Muller and his colleagues.

“By usage, they showed us things we never imagined. In part, in addition to these week-long projects there were also lunch dates, but also huge long threads of complex things that lasted for months…some were social and some of them were very work-related.”

One development in e-mail’s recent history has been the huge popularity of mobile “push” e-mail, to which hordes of BlackBerry-addicted executives can attest. The phenomenon is so great that Microsoft is looking at software to support similar devices.

This mobile migration also puts e-mail on a platform where it is competing with two very well-known alternatives – voice and instant messaging, the latter of which has already become a popular alternative on the desktop in many organisations.

In fact, as people become contacted more frequently wherever they are – via mobile phones, BlackBerries and instant messaging – some researchers have concluded that the accompanying disruptions are reducing efficiency and increasing stress.

Other researchers believe, on the other hand, that younger people are less bothered by this. IDC found e-mail is still more widely used than instant messaging (IM), but teenagers and young people in fast-paced work environments use IM more than e-mail. This could point to a trend towards younger staff pushing the adoption of communication and collaboration technologies inside the enterprise.

“You get the new generation coming in and saying ‘I can be so productive with this’,” says Jane Gately, chief information officer at Ernst & Young.

Ms Gately says this began with the mobile phone, but lately the BlackBerry has been one of the biggest examples. “BlackBerry is so much more – a consumer product that has hit the heart of the organisation, that has made a difference. The BlackBerry showed us that this trend exists, and to get comfortable with it.”

While email being squeezed by newer communications technologies such as IM, there is another more powerful shift taking place in collaboration technology that could be the turning point for e-mail use as we know it – and one that might, finally, address the gap between the informality of e-mail and the formality of high-end knowledge management and collaboration suites.

For example, wikis (websites that anyone can edit) are becoming a popular tool for collaborating on documents, while more executives are blogging to improve relations with staff and customers. Social networking tools, similar to those used in MySpace and Friendster, are being used to map “communities of practice” and identify areas of expertise within organisations.

Samuel Aparicio, director of product management at Angel.com, a call centre systems provider, says the switch to wikis helps managers and executives keep in touch with projects “without being CC-ed to death” on every minute detail or change. Instant messaging, he says, also takes the load off e-mail. “IM allows for the more ethereal conversations to happen, from the trivial “Are you free for lunch?” to the urgent “Is anybody experiencing difficulties accessing this system?”

The two biggest workplace e-mail vendors, IBM/Lotus and Microsoft, are moving quickly to develop new collaborative tools or, where necessary, adopt approaches such as wikis.

Microsoft in late 2003 hired Ward Cunningham, the inventor of wikis, for a two-year stint and is expecting to introduce some wiki functionality in Office 2007, due for release in this year. IBM is also researching technologies such as wikis and social bookmarking, alongside its own functions such as ActivityExplorer, the software tested by Mr Muller and his colleagues.

But far from turning their back on e-mail, many are looking at ways of enhancing it and using it more intelligently. Microsoft is developing tools that can monitor usage to determine whether each message is important enough to interrupt the recipient with an alert, and some smaller vendors have developed software to extract information from observing patterns of use, such as Morphix in the UK, whose software maps areas of expertise and interest among staff.

Socialtext, which sells the wiki software used by Angel.com and is one of the more successful companies developing social, web-based tools for enterprise use, consistently reduces e-mail volumes by about a third, says Ross Mayfield, chief executive. At the same time, one of the selling points of Socialtext’s wiki software is that it can capture content within messages and store them within a wiki.

“Over time, it will probably reduce e-mail traffic because people will have discussion groups in different types of software, or they’ll use IM,” says Chris Harris, a principal analyst at Ovum. “But the amount of communication is going to carry on rising.”

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