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Inbox Overload and Sustainable Collaboration

CCA LiveE | Sunday December 25th, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By James Lane

In November of 1860, word of Lincoln’s election reached San Francisco via Pony Express in a then unprecedented seven days and seventeen hours. Providing businesses with a fast and reliable method of contacting offices on opposite coasts, the Pony Express would nonetheless find itself obsolete in just eighteen months with the introduction of the country’s first transcontinental telegraph. One hundred and fifty-one years later, the Pony Express is firmly enshrined in American folklore, and another communications technology begins the slow march toward irrelevance. Is business ready for a post-email world?

The first email was sent forty years ago by researchers working on ARPAnet, the precursor to our modern Internet. Initially used by scientists to coordinate research, email quickly became an essential tool of business. There are nearly a billion active corporate email accounts, and, as noted in a 2011 study by the Radicati Group, these users send and receive, on average, 140 emails each day. The report also states that a quarter of the messages received have attachments, and that 85% of business users access their email from a mobile device. The behaviors surrounding email usage have changed drastically since the development of the technology, but email itself has not evolved to meet our growing needs.

Unsurprisingly, this heavy reliance results in Inbox Overload for many corporate users as the daily flow of communication becomes a torrent of requests and confirmations, often burying vital information. In addition to the myriad “best practices” espoused by self-proclaimed experts, companies have spent billions on software solutions that claim to help users manage their email, yet the problem has only grown. It is becoming clear that continued use of this disco-era tool overly taxes a workforce and, in a highly-competitive environment, is ultimately unsustainable.

Fortunately, a proven framework for change exists: social networks. What email struggles to maintain is precisely what makes social networks successful: conversations that exist within a given context, such as a photo or event. By adopting an integrated job management and social enterprise system, businesses can replace the usual dozen message reply-all email chain bonanza with process-relevant message threads, allowing their employees to avoid the clutter and get to what’s important.

For those working on the future of business collaboration, this is one of many goals in an Enterprise 2.0 environment. The Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) describes this environment as “a system of web-based technologies that provide rapid and agile collaboration, information sharing, emergence and integration capabilities in the extended enterprise.” Though some firms have begun to experiment with Enterprise 2.0 components, such as micro-blogging, it appears that large-scale migration is still years away. However, the sooner organizations can begin transitioning their communications and project management systems to more agile platforms, the better suited they will be to compete in the future.


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