The last few years have seen an explosion in the number of tools available for us to communicate not only at a consumer level, but also in the context of our workplace both internally within companies and externally between companies.
I primarily work with Microsoft technologies, but even within that small sphere the options are plentiful:
- Microsoft Teams
- Skype for Business
- Office 365 Groups
Outside of the Microsoft world it’s not uncommon to encounter these popular options as well:
- Google Hangouts
I’m actually a fan and regular user of many of these other than email. I use Microsoft Teams internally quite heavily, along with Yammer for cross company communication and Twitter for more widespread public broadcast and consumption. I’m also not unknown for shooting off a quick message on Skype or sharing something or reaching out to someone on LinkedIn.
I think each of these messaging platforms has a particular area in which it shines but other areas that let it down (which is why many of us use multiple platforms). Much has been said about what platform to use for the different types of communication and what you are trying to achieve:
I’m still of the opinion that while email is by far the oldest of the communication/messaging platforms it is still the backbone of business communication and this is for some key reasons that I don’t see changing in a hurry (mainly due to commercial interests!)
1 – People want to feel in control
Its natural for people to want to be in control, to be in their comfort zone. If we take a mature rich email client such as Outlook, the user has many ways in which they can organise, arrange and maintain their communication that makes sense to them and allows them to feel in control. Since the email that resides in the users mailbox is not shared, the user has ownership (and hence a sense of control) over the email and is free to manage it without affecting others. Outlook has the following features that allow a user to gain control and stay on top of email communications:
- Folders – Users can create a folder structure that makes sense to them for organising email. They are not locked in to only viewing messages in the order and “buckets” it’s presented to them in, which isn’t the case for many other platforms where it’s usually a case of one shared view that has to fit everyone.
- Categories – Users are free to create and assign categories to emails to assist with later retrieval or to mark that they need to do something in response to the email
- Followup actions with reminders – Emails can be flagged for followup at a specific date/time because often communication is requested something of us or requires a reply or some action in return.
- Rules – Users can create and apply complex rules to assist with organising emails
In contrast, most other message system provide rigid ways of viewing messages and unless requests are dealt with in a short time frame, they are easily and quickly lost in the noise. The users have very limited options for organising the messages in a way that suits them.
2 – People want to protect themselves and their data
With email, the sending party and the receiving party both have a copy of the email that they can govern according to their information management policies. This becomes particularly important when that email contains information that needs to be treated as a record, or if important information is stored as an attachment.
The attachments on an email can be both an advantage to email and it’s Achilles heal. Too often people send around a document (that is a work in progress) and you end up with no version control and people working on multiple different copies of it. A much better scenario is to have the file stored in a central system (e.g. SharePoint or OneDrive) and share out a link to the file so everyone can work on the same file. Once the file is completed though, and especially if it is an important document or deliverable to an external company – that document is of high importance as a record to both parties. By sending the file via email both parties have their own copy to retain for their records. Imagine if you were issued with a project scope document which you agree to (which is stored in the sending companies Document Management system) – you view and read the document via a link into their system. Now it comes time to deliver the project and they fall short on delivering to the agreed scope. You go back to look at that project scope document only to find you no longer have access! Not a situation many businesses would allow themselves to get into. So while external sharing works during the collaboration process, I don’t think it would satisfy the document management or records management requirements of both sides involved.
3 – People want to get the job done, not think about which tool to use
You can rely on anyone you want to communicate with having an email address. The same can’t be said for any of the other platforms. Unless you communicate with someone regularly, you probably have no idea what messaging platforms they use, and it’s a large burden to put on someone to force them to create an account and join up to a messaging platform or social network just so you can communicate with them.
Knowing that not everyone is going to be on the same messaging platform implicitly means that this is not going to scale and you are either going to have to use multiple messaging platforms or fall back to a common platform that everyone has at times – which is email.
4 – People want simplicity and their time back
Most people I speak to would love to have more time in their day. They struggle to process all the information that is thrown in their direction and to stay on top of what they need to action and respond to. Take myself, I get messages and information coming at me from email, Yammer, LinkedIn, Teams, Facebook, Twitter (and I’m sure their are others). If I had all the time in the world I would proactively go to my email client, Yammer app, LinkedIn app, Teams app, Facebook app and Twitter app to check those unread notifications and unread messages in feeds. This works if you’ve got time to “do the rounds” constantly and respond immediately, but that’s rarely the reality. What I find happens with most people (myself included) is that for each of the messaging platforms I go into the settings and I get it to notify me of any direct messages by sending me an email, and maybe get it to send a summary email every day/week of the top things I’ve missed (if the platform supports this). Now I just have to monitor my email inbox and I’m not going to miss anything important (like a direct message to me) and I have a rich toolkit to set followup flags, categories and reminders. If I’ve got time then I might go to the individual apps and use their beautiful interfaces to stay on top of things, but the majority of the time I’m content that anything important will come to me in my inbox.
5 – People don’t want to be locked in
This I feel is probably the biggest issue underpinning the success of the current wave of messaging platforms. They are backed by companies that want to lock you in to using their service. This makes sense, at the end of the day they are running a business! This means it is in their best interest to behave in the following way:
- Once you have your data stored with them, make it hard for you to take it and leave
- Closed to members only – they want you to get the people you are communicating with to “join” their platform thus trying to steal users from their competitors and win more market share
- Don’t integrate with other messaging platforms – how great would it be if a Facebook user could send a message to a Twitter user or Teams user? One standard for messaging between platforms? Great I don’t have to join a heap of different providers and setup all these accounts, sounds wonderful; But what do these companies stand to make out of that? It’s not going to increase their active user count.
To the contrary, no company “owns” email. A lot of companies provide email services, but the email protocol is well known and these system will all happily talk to each other and we enjoy an email environment where we can send a message to someone else without having to consider the email provider they are using. It is usually possible to export email and take it with you should you want to change email providers or systems. This type of export or change of provider just doesn’t make sense in most modern messaging platforms.
For these reasons, if I were forced to only keep one messaging platform and had to throw away the others, email is the one that would stay.
I recently spoke with Jeremy Thake in an interview that discussed the place of email in the Microsoft ecosystem that discusses these topics and more.