Is email dead?

In a context of declining resources and increasing demands, what digital tools can help people to work most productively in an organization like the European Commission?  How can we convince colleagues (and external partners) to change their habits and to engage with new solutions for online collaboration?  These were some of the questions that emerged during a recent “Digital Competence Day” for Commission staff organized by our human resources department.  I was pleased to be able to participate in some of the discussions from my current base in Seattle via video link, Twitter and Yammer.

Why Social Networks Are Better Than Emails For Enterprise Collaboration (shared by my colleague Claudio Nichele) highlights some of the weaknesses of email (valuable information is inaccessible for many colleagues, knowledge is lost when people leave or move jobs …) and outlines better alternatives for knowledge management and collaboration.  Research by the Harvard Business School suggests that there is a productivity payoff for companies and organizations that embrace social media as an alternative to email.  And Atos made headlines last year by announcing that it was aiming for a zero email strategy inside the company.

But, I think that it would be a mistake to think that email is going to go away altogether.  Research by the Pew Research Center in the USA shows that email is still the most popular online activity (92% of internet users).  And The Nielsen Company has found that email use is actually higher amongst heavy social media users rather than lower (see chart).  Representatives of state and local government agencies at a meeting in Seattle a couple of months ago confirmed to me that, even though social media is on the rise, they still see email as one of the key channels for distributing real-time information to local people.

Social media users and email

Heavy social media consumers use more email (The Nielsen Company)

Email use is certainly changing, but the likelihood is that it will continue to exist alongside newer communication technologies in a “hybrid” environment (to borrow a concept from a forthcoming book The Hybrid Media System by Andrew Chadwick).  In the workplace, this means that “knowledge workers” in organizations like the Commission will have to be capable of juggling with a range of digital tools (including email) for different tasks.  And, in order to work effectively with ever-increasing quantities of information, we will all have to develop our skills in filtering and managing data across multiple platforms.

One of the things that I have learned through trying to study the psychology of digital media here at the University of Washington is that multitasking is a myth.  The human brain can perform a controlled process (requiring attention and effort) and an automatic process (an acquired skill like walking or driving) at the same time, but it cannot perform several controlled processes at once.  This means that email and other digital media that constantly solicit our active attention (instant messaging, text messages, Twitter, Yammer, Facebook etc…) can interfere with concentration.  This is confirmed by research carried out a few years ago by Microsoft.

Dealing with information overload and competing demands on our attention is a key challenge for organizations like the Commission.  Different departments can work together to support colleagues across the organization:

  • Communication (by providing guidance and helping to identify which tools work best for which kind of task)
  • IT (keeping pace with change and providing the technical solutions that people need to achieve their objectives)
  • Human resources (helping people to upgrade their digital skills, like at the Commission’s recent digital competence day)
  • Management (setting priorities and leading by example)


Filed under Digital media, EU, USA

8 responses to “Is email dead?

  1. I am also convinced that email is not dead. The use of email for what it was conceived will remain, one-to-one conversations, but also more and more for notifications and alerts.
    On the other hand, you mentioned the psychology of digital media and our inability to be multitasking, which means that we cannot put attention and efforts on several controlled processes in parallel. Well, that’s totally true (that’s my own experience too, unfortunately). This is true because, most probably, we are still “performing tasks” like in the past and we have not yet integrated the metamorphosis required by the “digital technologies” revolution. This revolution must be seen as the 2 big previous revolutions in the history: the creation of Writing and the advent of Printing. These two impacted us, as human beings, with a big loss of our memory, of our reason, and others of our cognitive abilities, just because there was a transfer of these cognitive abilities from our head to external “devices” (words, books, etc). But with our brain freed from constraints we were able to create and develop new things, new concepts, new ideas. Our ancestors changed totally their ways to “perform tasks” after these revolutions. We are there now! Comparing to the past, this digital revolution is extremely fast and it gives us few time to change. But when I am looking to the new generations, I can already see changes. They flit naturally from one device to another, from the real world to the virtual one (is there anymore a distinction in their own world?), following multiple threads in parallel, doing several things in parallel. For me, with my brain educated in the old system, this represents a loss of concentration and a nightmare to control everything in order to produce something. I cannot say how and why, but I am sure that they are to achieve the required change which is the integration of the fact that other cognitive abilities are externalised (from our brain) to these digital technologies. One of these is certainly the process of performing tasks that we, us from the old generation, insist to maintain, to understand, to control, to detail, etc.
    To quote Michel Serres: digital technologies condemn us to become more intelligent and more creative because more and more of our abilities and knowledge are in these technologies.

    • Thanks to everyone for the comments. I agree with much of what Claudio says, but I am concerned that as digital media “evangelists” in our organisation we should avoid falling into an Animal Farm style oversimplification “email bad, social media good”.

      We can build greater credibility and influence with our colleagues if we adopt a more nuanced line of argumentation along the following lines:

      1. The future will be complex. We are facing a tsunami of data and information spread across an ever increasing number of channels.

      2. In order to understand what is going on in the world and make our voices heard, all “knowledge workers” (not just people working on communication) will have to update their skills and change their way of working.

      3. This will not be an easy process. Productivity gains will not be automatic or immediate. There will be resistance to change, and initially many people may be confused, distracted and frustrated.

      4. The status quo is not an option. One of the main divides in the future, at work and in society more generally, will be between digital “haves and have-nots”.

      5. Our job as communication professionals (together with our colleagues in IT and human resources) is to accompany people on this journey. Amongst other things, this means becoming better at providing evidence and convincing examples to show which tools and channels are best for which job.

      Do you agree?

      • Totally agree! In a world, not only the digital world but the entire world, becoming increasingly complex at a higher speed than in the past, our own behavior must evolve: adopting nuanced lines instead of radical opinions (Tony) and be prepared to reconsider old habits more often (Julie). It is clear to many of us that new skills are to be acquired also to evolve in the digital world. In this regard I have reread an article that identified, in 2010, “skills needed in the next 10 years”. All what it says is still relevant in 2013.

  2. Egbert

    A quote riposte and an excerpt from a former United States Information Agency director:”The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it”.

  3. I agree that email is not dead. As an educator, parents are not going to Tweet at me or become Facebook friends with me if they have questions about their child’s progress, the curriculum, etc.; they are going to use email. That said, I think you make a great point about “filtering and managing data across multiple platforms.” As we’ve seen with the decline of print news, people are getting their news from other sources. I think that this is a great opportunity for educators to show students how digital media can be used effectively to find and manage information.

  4. julie

    Email is not dead and social media are certainly not the solution for everything. As you rightly said, people need to know which tool is best for what. And some need guidance, others figure out themselves.
    The issue to me is that each one of us needs to be open and ready to embrace the tools when they bring value. In the case of social media, we now have a lot of concrete cases at our disposal which demonstrate their value in certain circumstances.

    Some are still resistant to try these tools. Resistance to stay in a comfort zone, why not? But come on, email is not good for everything. It is obvious that it does not help for collaboration and knowledge sharing and that it can be a source of stress. We need to look at alternatives, and certainly social media can bring some smart ones (filtering, archiving, mass collaboration among others).
    A bit of French for your blog “seuls les imbéciles ne changent pas d’avis” 🙂 Let’s abandon some old bad habits and start sharing one-to-many and many-to-many. Email is not dead but parts of its bad use yes. And I also hope that we will stop spending 60% of our time managing them !

  5. Pingback: Govloop – a knowledge network for government | European Union 2.0

  6. Pingback: Leserbrief zum FAS Interview mit Bundestagspräsident Norbert Lammert: Social Parlament statt Papierstau! - MicrosoftPresse - Site Home - TechNet Blogs

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