I frequently surprise people when in response to an email I pick up the telephone and give them a call, as I usually point out if the phone had been invented after email then it would have been seen as a breakthrough in the ability to collaborate. There is no doubt about it email is simple and easy, and based on thirty plus year old technology! Yup its one of the oldest technologies we have in mainstream use today, but most importantly it also belongs to a previous age of working practices and business architecture.
Email came about as part of the ‘green screen’ era of mini and mainframe computers in the eighties when business life was very hierarchically organised and a great deal more certain with less of the unpredictable changes which we face today. So we should be seeing Collaboration as the answer to this dynamic world so why aren’t we adopting it faster, what is the management attraction to eMail? The smart management consultants tell me its because eMail belongs to a style of ‘command and control’, and it’s hard not to feel that is at least part of its attraction still today. The alternative way that it is seen is even worse; namely ‘send and forget’, as if the action of sending is the completion of the task. eMail is transaction oriented, as is the technology of IT, tight coupled integration, procedures and data integrity.

The nineties saw the technology shift around the PC, and the Network, to Information Technology and with it some pretty big shifts in working practice and organisational models, yet somehow eMail not just survived, but prospered as more people had screens and keyboards. Interesting isn’t it? Now I am not a management consultant, but my colleagues who are, tell me it’s linked to the age and style of managers. In other words there is a delay factor between the first generation of adoption and the time its takes for these adopters to take the technology up to management positions.
Actually that’s probably a simplification as it’s really not just a technology capability that has to be assimilated it’s also a change in management style. Does that mean it takes a generation switch in management roles before the average business will fully embrace collaborative working? So is it nothing to do with technology and more to do with culture, some think so! Well, maybe. The counter argument is that the external world of globalisation, competitive forces, and yes maybe even the credit crunch, will force a faster rate of change. This argument also embraces the thought that management de-layering will remove those managers, who are resistant to change, or at least changing times and working practices.
Let’s go back to the business case for eMail for a moment; its pretty universally accepted that there isn’t one, instead its just one of those utilities that every business has to have like offices. Like offices? Well the requirement for office space is certainly not being taken for granted these days as Enterprise officers search for cost reductions, and as part of those cost reductions ask themselves about home, or mobile working practices. So they are already acknowledging that some of these unquestioned ‘utilities’ need to be questioned and from the view point of what technology now allows in working practices.
Back to the case against eMail, it’s not the cost of operating the eMail service that should be examined, that has been going down for some years now, it’s the case for the time it costs workers, and therefore the enterprise. eMail is a non discriminate process that all to often means that too many copies are used and too many people waste time opening and reading something that they, or their boss, would judge irrelevant. Ask most people are they in favour of eMail free Fridays and the answer is yes, but ask them if they can manage without eMail and the answer is no. In short we need to be able to communicate but it needs to be much, much better in context and resulting delivery of value.
If this isn’t the beginnings of a business case of justifying introducing Collaborative tools, and in particular doing it as part of a management overhaul while de layering then I don’t know what is. Lets headline it; 1) percentage of time per person spent on eMail per day; 2) percentage of time considered wasted on eMail per day; 3) amount of time spent finding the right person and chasing of decision per day; 4) the value of this time in terms of employee loaded cost per hour.
All of this is before we even consider any positive factors in making the enterprise run better. So if you are looking for savings, considering de layering management, or other such activities it has surely got to be worth considering this as part of the approaching the whole issue in a cohesive manner.