Could we be approaching the end of e-mail?

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E-mails today contain spam, viruses, malicious code and phishing scams from unknown Russian gangs and enterprising Nigerian criminals.

“You’ve got mail.” There was a time, say about 1998 when the hit romantic comedy of the same name made its debut, that the phrase was cute. E-mail was a fast, special way to be connected. AOL’s ringy-dingy reminder was charming. Then e-mail stopped being cute and special because everyone had it. Then it stopped being charming because it never stopped. Now we find ourselves stuck with the most ironic of unintended consequences of the once efficient e-mail: Its vast inefficiency.

The e-mail is frequently followed by the text: “Did u get my e-mail?” Or worse, the dreaded phone call to ask the same question. The sheer volume of corporate e-mail is a pretentious sign of importance; the more you get the higher in the corporate pecking order you must reside. Work matters go to die in graveyards of never-ending, corporate e-mail chains. E-mail now consumes much of our workweek, driving down efficiency and productivity. It’s gotten so bad there’s an unintended consequence to the unintended consequence: We may actually be mercifully approaching the end of e-mail.

E-mail was actually born nearly 50 years ago in 1965 on the campus of MIT as a way for computer users to share messages. I will confess my own guilt: I was an early adopter of e-mail in the late 1980s and early 1990s when all things Internet were just obscure enough to be interesting and just accessible enough to be free or cheap. I would dial up my Compuserve (What happened to them?) account and patiently wait while my computer connected. And sure enough there might be three or four e-mails, usually work-related. Or perhaps there was one from another long lost, nerd friend.
And as a nerd, I confess: It was fun. So the movie was fun and cute, too. On screen, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, at the direction of the late Nora Ephron, encountered each other in person as work rivals fighting over the book store business. (What happened to that?) But they were also, unknown to each other, electronic pen pals who bit by bit fell in love. All through e-mail. E-mail was personal after all. And of course, the movie ended with true love begun on AOL but unveiled in a Manhattan park.

Fast forward to today. Each day, 250 billion e-mails are sent; that number is in the process of doubling, according to Messagemind, a New York e-mail software company. They contain spam, viruses, malicious code and phishing scams from unknown Russian gangs and enterprising Nigerian criminals. At work, this once speedy form of communication — “Sure.” “Yes.” “No.” “Let’s meet on this.” — is the least effective way to get anything done. I know one publishing executive who consistently apologizes by e-mail for not responding to e-mails he says are important. He is very polite in his apologies. And then he proceeds to not respond. I had one exchange go on for two days with someone else only to settle it in two minutes on the phone. The e-mail is the new conference call. Which is the old meeting. And as the old saw says, “When you’re in a meeting you’re not working.” The same is true of e-mail: When you’re managing it, you’re not producing.

My friend Mark Seiler, president of a beverage company, notices that e-mails take on lives of their own inside larger companies; vast numbers of executives and assistants are weighing in, positioning an issue in a certain light for advancement or credit. Or waiting on others to respond first. What could be settled in a 10-minute phone call or a 20-minute face-to-face meeting stretches out over days and then weeks and then months. Phil Herring, an apartment manager, got 1,500 e-mails over a weekend in his last job; he got a new one. Shawn Lively, a magazine publisher, gets so little face time with clients and vendors that most think she is a man. Trust me: She isn’t.

It turns out that workers spend 41 percent of their time going through business e-mail, according to a paper by Messagemind. And not just in this country. In Great Britain, not only did one in five workers say they spent that much time on e-mail, according to an IBM study, but 20 percent of the time the e-mail was just useless, pointless or sent to the wrong person in the first place. Volkswagen has reportedly banned corporate e-mail to workers with Blackberry devices (What happened to those, anyway?) during non-working hours. And Atos — a global information technology company — has purportedly vowed to stop using e-mail by 2014.

The best idea may come from the IdeaPlane, which advocates that companies ditch e-mail. Amen. But in favor of what exactly? A phone call? A meeting? A Star Trek communicator? No. It turns out that enterprise social networking will replace e-mail. Gartner, the IT research firm, predicts that in 2014 companies will substitute enterprise social networking for e-mail in 20 percent of their communications. In other words, Facebook for business. Awesome. I’m sure that will work.

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