Email is Tyrannosaurus Rex: feared and soon to be extinct

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 1.02.04 AMWe all use email whether we want to or not. Nearly everyone relies on it as much as many of us hate it and we mostly use it because everyone else does. An interactive presentation in Harvard Business Review this month by Barry Gill made the statement, “Email: Not Dead, Evolving.” Being in the ’email is dying’ camp, I had to see what Barry had to say:

Periodically you may hear digital hipsters claim that e-mail is dead. Don’t believe them. People still spend half their workday dealing with it, they trust it, and overall they’re satisfied with it, according to our 2012 survey of 2,600 workers in the U.S., UK, and South Africa who use e-mail every day. E-mail is not dead, it’s just evolving. It’s becoming a searchable archive, a manager’s accountability source, a document courier. And for all the love social media get, e-mail is still workers’ most effective collaboration tool. It’s far from perfect: Three-quarters of all e-mail is junk, and we’re wasting lots of time dealing with less important messages. But it remains the mule of the information age—stubborn and strong.

Wait a minute…am I reading this correctly?

A searchable archive – Email is evolving into a searchable archive? Really? That’s a version of evolution? Haven’t we been searching content for a while now and far more effectively than email?

A manager’s accountability source – I guess if the job is so programmatic that email is a an accountability tool…um…maybe. As a manager, I know who’s doing their job not by email (at all…I mean at all), but by their organizational effectiveness and the value they generate for the company. Email is a coward’s accountability tool.

A document courier – It’s hard to believe there aren’t far better ways to manage and move documents than email. Oh, wait…there are. Outside of  legal docs, the rise of DropBox and other cloud apps shows us that having a single version of the truth far outweighs the multi-version nightmare of email for real work to get done.

Call me a hipster, but I find newer tools to be far more effective and easier to use as well.

Matter of comfort

Uses of EmailRather than say email is evolving, I’d say people are stuck in a mass-comfort zone and the effort of getting used to collaboration tools isn’t perceived as worth the value, unlike when email arrived and was a sea change from the past. The real evolution isn’t the email platform, but our own ways of thinking about collaboration.

The same report says that 30% of respondents find email difficult to use, meaning that there’s a disconnect between what we do with email and how we feel about it. We’re humans and that’s not very surprising. Here are the other figures that support that we have a love/hate relationship with email (and that something has to give:

  • Time spent on email: 50%. Time spent managing, archiving and searching: 22%. Consider the productivity lost in that math.
  • Email access points: 60% work laptop/PC, 8% mobile device. As work gets more mobile and flexible, this points to email as a stationary channel.
  • Uses for email: 76% for exchanging documents. This is arguably the least efficient use of email with so many portals, document repositories and cloud storage sites.

This report struck me more as a defense of the status quo than an indicator that email is evolving in a meaningful way. In the graphic below, I see a massive amount of organizational churn, not a sign that email is headed to a better place. I’m on vacation now and watching ‘real-time’ streams of email on my phone truly highlights the time wasting going on.

Email is Tyrannosaurus Rex, at the top of the food chain. But that dark spot in the sky? That’s the enormous meteor approaching.

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 2.27.12 AM


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Categories: Social / Collaboration, Workplace Reality

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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9 Comments on “Email is Tyrannosaurus Rex: feared and soon to be extinct”

  1. June 20, 2013 at 4:11 am #

    I’m actually in the “email will never die” camp but I agree with your assessment of the HBR article. I don’t believe email is evolving, in fact I can’t see any real difference since I first started using it. And to me that explains a lot about why it just won’t go away. It does what it does and nothing else does that effectively enough to replace it.

    I’m also a believer that email is a massive productivity drain. When I left my previous position I realised that I often used email as an excuse to avoid doing real work. As long as I was responding to email I was productive right? Wrong, I was lazy, it was easier for me to respond to some low priority message than to spend time and effort being creative.

    Now that I am accountable to my family for time I spend producing value I’m a lot more focused on what I should be doing rather than what I could be doing. But email is still a valuable resource, do I use it to communicate with colleagues, friends or family? Rarely but enough that it is important to have it. Today it acts as a sort of aggregator of information from all the different platforms I use, a single reminder of what’s going on around me that isn’t immediately important.

    • June 20, 2013 at 4:15 am #

      Well-considered reply, Craig. Great points all.

      It’s entirely possible that I just want it to die because I know it is an enormous productivity drain. I begrudgingly agree with your assessment that it may never die. It’s like the AOL of today.

  2. June 20, 2013 at 6:20 am #

    Hello Chris,
    While I agree with you that there are other tools available that can do more than email, the reality is that they are not yet universal. Until there is an agreed feature set that is available across all platforms so that a base level of cross platform communication without manual integration is available, there will be no real challenger to email.

    While you may disagree with the three points mentioned in this article, there are very real and very valid cases backing all of them.

    Without nit picking on single points, I think the important concept to discuss is really that email is already there, it is already in front of users, it is already known and understood by users and equally importantly it is known and understood by everyone from web designers to WordPress plugin developers to PCM eprom programmers.

    This means that there is a market of user and a way to expose services to them.

    In the corporate space this is largely being taken (currently) by better discovery and compliance tools that save money and reduce risk while in the user space its bringing things like mobility, conversation threading, redirects, scheduled sending etc etc.

    While much of this has been available, it has typically required special software to make it happen. Today, we see that these feature sets are becoming the de facto required feature sets and as such the email server vendors are building that functionality in.

    Over and above that, we also see that email server vendors are introducing social media tools and features into their base repertoires, helping to keep email relevant while keeping new technologies away from their users.

    Forgetting about the evolution of server side services, look at the important comparison with end user mail clients.

    Outlook 2013 allows developers to write apps that integrate with Outlook (and other Office apps) in ways never before possible. Notes now has a heavy focus on the “embedded experience”. Even Mozilla are integrating real time conversations with various messaging applications right into Thunderbird.

    I think to cry that email is dead is frightfully naïve and misses the fact that SoMe is not displacing email systems but rather complimenting them. This gives email software the time and grace to build out required feature sets without endangering its user base. That tells me that SoMe is on a far more precarious footing than SoMe…

    • June 20, 2013 at 6:49 am #

      Barry, thank you for a thought-provoking reply. We definitely see the value of email differently and I also see the value of further investment in email as something we should question carefully.

      The lack of a single standard isn’t the best argument for the continuation of email. For me, that’s arguing that rail transport was a poor idea early on because each system had a different gauge of tracks. When those differences are figured out, email will quickly look inefficient.

      With that said…if email morphs to become social, something that isn’t happening quickly, it has a chance but the end product will need to be very unlike what we have today. I just don’t see the evolution happening in meaningful ways or at acceptable rates.

  3. June 20, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    Email certainly isn’t morphing to become social very quickly but neither are standards in social emerging that will help unify social and make it a true contender.

    You may not think that a lack of standards (and it is not one single standard, there are MANY governing email that have taken decades to sort out) isn’t a good argument for the continuation of email but I disagree. Strongly.

    Right now, I can send an email to anyone in the world (if I have their address) using something that is installed on my phone, my tablet, my laptop, my multifunction scanner, my website, my blog, my trouble ticketing system, my CRM system, my accounting system, my project management system and it will get there in a format that I am expecting it to get there. It will look (mostly) like I want it to and it will go through a series of checks, transfers and transformations that I can plan for. I don’t, in fact, have to plan for all of those because the kind folks who over the years have created these fine standards, have ensured that when someone talks to a server to transfer data from one place to another via email, it will behave in a bare minimum of sets of ways.

    I can send emails to users of Linux, Microsoft, MacOS, iOS, WP, WinCE, Symbian, PalmOS, Windows 3.11 for WorkGroups, Minix, BSD, FreeBSD, WebBSD and more. I can even receive mails from them.

    The reality is that with the worlds connected population, email is already available to EVERYONE, Social Media is available to everyone but there are so many choices and use cases to consider. Geography even plays a part in which network you become a member of.
    Facebook does not equal Google+ which does not equal Yammer which does not equal Bebo which does not equal Twitter which does not equal LinkedIn which does not equal… you get the picture.

    In order to do business you have to be where your customers are and they are all on email.

  4. June 21, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    I enjoyed reading this and have a couple of comments.

    One problem with email is that it allows undisciplined communication. This is especially true for communications within a company or – even more the case – within a group or function. It is up to managers to control this; often it is an indicator of poor process and confused responsibility.

    As an example, I had one of my teams record their email for a week and identify source. Nearly 80% was internal to the team. Through analysis, we were able to identify its cause and cut the volume by almost 80% – but this is an on-going task, not a one-time activity. However, it does illustrate how we can do email analytics to better identify process improvements.

    Of the 11,680 average emails (highlighted in your article) I wonder how many are typically within a sub-group of a few people?

    Second, I enjoyed your blog such that I forwarded it to a few of my colleagues (yes, it added to the email traffic). One was sufficiently alert to point out the following words that appear on the right hand side of your blog – promoting the use of email not just once, but three times!


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    • June 21, 2013 at 8:38 am #

      Ah, yes, the contradictions even within the blog. For that, I’ll need to agree with Barry Gill’s comments that email is the only place where everyone is and the only common denominator (or the point of preference) for some of the blog’s followers. Like taxes, I wish it could go away but at the same time recognize the inherent need for it to stick around.

      The reality is that email is not evolving, in my perspective, which is why it has to go. It is essentially the same product used the same way for the past 18 years, even if the interfaces are better and they’ve added some usability features. In the end, I agree with your team’s assessment that it generates a great deal of inefficiency, something the article I was critiquing failed to mention.


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