beyond email: can we find an alternative?

Good things are made to last, but not everything sticks around because it’s great. Take email, the communications medium so time consuming that at least one company tried to ban it altogether.

Atos SE, which is one of Europe’s largest IT outsourcing firms, implemented its Zero Email policy in 2011, designed to eliminate internal email altogether. Since then, it has shifted to a form of enterprise social networking using blueKiwi, which it purchased a year later. The process has been so successful that it ran large portions of the Sochi 2014 Olympic games without a single inbox.

"We have discovered that the best processes in our business run without email,” says Robert Shaw, who headed up the Zero Email program before becoming the CEO at blueKiwi Software. The firm certified major processes such as the Security Identification and Event Management (SIEM) process at the London and Sochi Olympics as email-free.

Shaw says that things run more efficiently without email, which isn’t surprising. A 2012 report by McKinsey found that knowledge workers spend 28% of their time processing the contents of their inboxes, and a further 19% trying to track down information to complete tasks - much of which is buried there.

Increasingly, companies are looking for a better way. Project management services like Asana are trying to replace email with dashboard-style systems that make updates on team activity easier to consume.

handling automated email

They aren’t the only ones trying to scrape email out of the corporate environment. Stewart Butterfield is going a step further. After selling his Flickr photo sharing service to Yahoo, the Vancouver-based entrepreneur started a video game firm called Tiny Speck. While there, he tried to innovate his way around the firm’s own internal email problem, and in February, launched a tool to do the same for other companies. Called Slack, it is designed to replace email entirely, by integrating with dozens of automated systems.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of email, Butterfield says. There are mails that people send to each other, and there are mails designed just to transfer files.

“The third kind, which represents 90% of my inbox, is email that comes from computers,” says Butterfield. That’s the kind that he’s most interested in.

Today, when someone follows someone else on Twitter, or opens a help ticket, or fills out a sales query, it’s likely that someone else will get an email, which will get buried or mixed up with other content.

Instead, Slack shows these events in a dashboard, enabling them to be quantified more easily. Of 5,952 messages that came through his system in one day, 71% came from integrations with automated systems, he says.

building shared knowledge

The advantages of this become clear over time, as that information aggregates. Rather than being locked away in one person’s inbox, everyone in the team has access to it, and it’s easily searchable. “If we ever get a question in the help system or on Twitter, then we can paste that into the search box and see it right away,” he says.

Team members can also track emergent issues more rapidly by creating ‘channels’, much like the channels used in the old-school Internet Relay Chat (IRC) system. These channels can be organized however the team wants, such as by sub-team, or topic. People can then report emerging events and surface issues more quickly. It’s better than waiting for emails to be collated by a manager and discussed at a team meeting a day later, Butterfield argues.

It also helps with what Butterfield calls “soft knowledge”. When a company hires a new person, they have the whole history of recent communication to scroll back over, segmented into relevant topics, rather than facing an empty inbox.

“Even more important, they can see who knows the answers to what kinds of questions. Who makes a decision in this area,” he says. “That soft knowledge for how an organization works can take months when you begin working in a new place.”

All of this heralds a move towards what Atos’s Shaw calls “social business”. In one email-eradication exercise, it created a CIO space open to all employees. “We found those employees were solving problems for each other, independently of direct input from the CIO team – saving cost and demonstrating that social media can bring peer-to-peer support in the workplace just as gamers around the world use fan groups,” he says.

what about external email?

These tools are still internally-focused, however; Real Times got in touch with both Atos and Tiny Speck via email, and Butterfield doesn’t think email will ever go away entirely. That’s problematic, not least because of the security risk.

Email is based mostly on SMTP, which is a highly-chatty plain text protocol. When companies send emails to each other, it’s effectively like writing information on a postcard, which can be a problem when dealing with sensitive information.

It isn’t just the content that’s visible; metadata such as IP addresses and email client versions can help anyone pinpoint where you were when you sent the mail, and what operating system you were using.

“This is logging and debugging information that shouldn’t be in the message. And it’s there forever,” says Jon Callas, CTO of secure communications firm Silent Circle. Callas is working with others on DarkMail, an initiative to replace traditional email with a secure version that will be anonymous.

While some brave souls try to fix email, the rest of us soldier on. Trying to get another expert to comment on this article, this writer followed up after several days. “Apologies,” they said, “but your original email was in my junk folder.”

Clearly, the world has a long way to go.