RIP email. Is the writing on the Wall?

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in consumer technology, if you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today. And the latest figures say that only 11% of teenagers email daily. So email – I can’t imagine life without it – is probably going away”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made this bold prediction in 2009. She’s not alone. Experts have been predicting the demise of email for years.

I must confess, until my flirtation with Twitter and LinkedIn turned into a full-on love affair I remained sceptical about such claims, such was my appreciation of and dependence on email in and out of work.

Today, I’m afraid email has lost its sparkle. It has become nothing more than a tedious, ponderous and bloated utility. My use is pretty much confined to business, where it remains ubiquitous and, for the foreseeable future, will remain so until someone comes up with a better dashboard for managing ones private business communications, tasks and appointments.

The communication element of email at work for many of us has largely been usurped by Instant Messaging. Email tends to get used when speed is not important, the person I wish to communicate is not immediately available, or I want to keep an easily accessible record of a request or response. Outside of work I have stopped using it other than where someone else requires or expects an email from me.

Some social mavericks have made public declarations of their intention to work without email. Professor Paul Jones now expects his colleagues and students to use other means to contact him. IBM staffer Luis Suarez has lived and worked for the last 3 years without email. Good for them – not so good perhaps for some their colleagues who are forced to use unfamiliar and unwelcome technologies if they wish to make contact.

Going back to Sheryl Sandberg, what she describes is life before work. Teenagers don’t need all that work stuff. What they want is instant communication gratification. Email is too slow. It doesn’t match up to their social intensity. Blackberry Messenger has given Blackberry a new lease of life and a whole new generation to sell to. Who’d have thought Blackberry would produce a TV ad aimed at teenagers a few years ago? My kids don’t want an iPhone because bbm is so highly valued among their age group.

This graph from Morgan Stanley’s 2010 Internet Trends report shows that in July 2009, social media users overtook email users across the globe for the first time and I bet that the gap will have grown significantly by the time their next report is published.

One thing that will keep email figures artificially high is that all of the emergent social media channels use email to drive traffic to their sites. Around 85% of my own private emails are Twitter, LinkedIn or Empire Avenue activity notifications.

By the time I read them I have already seen the details on the sites themselves, which present the information in a far more digestible and accessible way, which is why my private email inbox tends to be my last port of call when I go online every day.

My main activity within my private email account seems to be deleting pages and pages of unread, unwanted and unimportant emails.

What do you think? Do you think email will survive in its current form?

The consumerisation of IT

A long long time ago, I was a young detective constable working for the Metropolitan Police. We used mechanical typewriters in those days and we had a typing pool where you would send up handwritten victim statements, which a week later would return for checking and approval. Any mistakes or corrections would be marked up and returned to the typing pool and a few days later the final version would re-appear ready for inclusion in the case papers.

I wasn’t in a position to change such an inefficient process. But I knew there was a better way, so I just did it. I bought myself a portable electronic typewriter with built-in word processor and I taught myself to touch type. I used to take it with me when I was taking statements from witnesses or victims and I’d write down their accounts and print them off there and then and get them to sign them. It was faster and more legible than writing them by hand. And I’d return to the station with a case ready statement.

A few years later I purchased a Rabbit phone. Mobile phone technology had a long way to go in those days. Mobiles were too expensive and too big and the Met Police were not ready to provide them to staff. So I bought a Rabbit, stuck the base unit on my desk and hey presto had the first hands free phone in the Met (probably). It worked a treat. I could move around the office and speak to people on the phone at the same time. And occasionally I’d take it out with me because I knew where all of the local Rabbit transmitters were so I could make calls while out and about if I needed to.

Hardly revolutionary stuff by today’s standards but actually back then it was far from normal behaviour. I took a fair bit of stick for both investments from colleagues who couldn’t quite get why I’d spend my own hard earned money on buying equipment to use at work. In those days the norm was to accept the equipment and technology supplied by your employer and you just got on with it.

Things have changed.

A recent survey indicates that 95% of employees these days have at least one self-purchased device they use for work. I suspect the iPhone is largely responsible for this change in sentiment. These days it is completely normal to see colleagues carrying their own iPhones, iPads, and HTCs around the office and they think nothing of using them for work purposes if they can.

Despite this willingness to buy and train themselves on their own consumer technologies, according to the same survey around 70% of IT departments persist with traditional models of purchasing standardised technologies, which are often seen as a bit of a compromise by the end users.

At the same time, the explosion of social media channels is changing the way we all communicate. Let’s face it – do you know anyone who does not use at least one or more of the following on a daily basis – Facebook, IM, Linkedin, Twitter, Blackberry Messenger, or YouTube?

I read a lovely quote in CIO Magazine the other day that sums it up for me:

“Imagine how a 2011 college grad reacts when she arrives at her new desk and turns on her PC to discover that it’s running a locked-down version of an operating system that was first released when she was 12.”

Be under no illusion. The consumerisation of IT together with the democratisation of communication is changing the face of the modern workplace.

As Internal Communicators we need to keep right on top of this if we are to add value to our organisations.

Tackling social media

A lot of companies misuse and abuse social media. They know they have to do something. They’ve been to one of those crazy overpriced social media conferences and talked to a few agencies and vendors. They keep reading scary stories about it in the papers. They are exposed to the risk of last mover disadvantage and they know it.

So they jump in to tackle social media with both feet off the ground and their studs showing.  Little wonder their customers show them the red card.

So where did they go wrong?

They invited a bunch of senior bods from the Communications, PR, Advertising and Marketing teams to form a squad.  All good people – top performers and experts in their chosen fields – after all, this is important stuff.

The only problem is none of them were active users of social media.

And so they kicked off by applying tried and tested old world communications values to a medium they didn’t really get. They applied military style planning to detailed and time bound communications campaigns. Not realising that command and control does not work in the world of social media, the downward spiral of selling and spamming began.

All they had to do was leverage the existing expertise and enthusiasm of the growing band of natural born social mediarites already on the payroll. The people who understand that social media is not a broadcast channel but a place where people converse and create meaningful relationships.

They should have listened to self-styled Community Evangelist at LinkedIn, Mario Sundar, who made the following observation two years ago:

“Your employees, starting with your executives, influence your company’s employment brand more than any advertising campaign that you will ever craft. They do so through their blog, word-of-mouth sites like Twitter, and of course on LinkedIn, where they build their “professional brand” in ways that are intrinsically tied to your company’s brand.”

They do this through natural authentic daily interactions with their personal and professional networks. They don’t sell. They don’t spam. They don’t follow orders. You cannot script them. All you need to do is allow them the freedom to express themselves and allow their natural advocacy to shine through.

These are the people who should be involved in formulating and delivering your company’s social media strategy.

Internal Communications on Linkedin?

I recently started a discussion on my company’s group on Linkedin about using the site as an Internal Communications channel. The main strands of the feedback were:

  • We don’t need yet another channel to have to keep an eye on
  • Fear that ex-staff are also part of the group
  • Fear over security features on the site
  • The lawyers said no!

I was somewhat surprised at the push back until I realised that it was my fault for not positioning the idea quite as I had intended.

My own considered definition of Internal Communication is likely to be very different from everyone else around here – after all, I’m the only one who thinks about it all day every day, and occasionally wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking about it too…

Most people not immersed in the dark art would naturally assume that Internal Communication is communication exclusively within an organisation. The fact is, these days with the speed, ease and penetration of digital and mobile communication, there is growing convergence between internal and external communications. There has to be.

One reason for this is simply because staff are participating in social media channels like Facebook and Twitter in ever increasing numbers. And just as we can’t and shouldn’t attempt to regulate what they say to their friends in the pub or their family across the dinner table about what it’s like to work here, we should not attempt to do so online either.

Most staff are natural and willing advocates of the company they work for, and rather than trying to script them with carefully crafted words, or banning them from contributing to certain online communities, or threatening them with disciplinary action if they cross some digital line, surely companies are far better off working hard to constantly improve their experience at work.

The growth of social media channels is making even email look very slow and cumbersome these days, and communications professionals have to assume that anything broadcast internally has the potential to reach the outside world within seconds – and spread across the globe just as quickly. At best, IT security measures can only ever hope to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted and provide the necessary evidence to invoke disciplinary procedures.

Of course there have to be some rules and there certainly has to be some advice and guidance. But demonstrating trust in people and creating a climate of authentic advocacy through increased transparency, openness, humility, honesty, integrity, personal growth, professional development, meaningful work and fun looks to me a lot more effective and rewarding.

I agree that we should not be in the business of creating more places where people are expected to have to visit to find information or provide give feedback. That was never in my mind. I know how hard it is to drive traffic to a single very accessible source already, let alone encourage them to contribute to discussions and leave feedback.

My thinking here was simply that where you have an existing pervasive channel it feels like a lost opportunity to ignore it just because it is external. It would only ever be a complementary alternative place for people to find out what is going on and have their say in case they were finding it hard to find their way to the single source of corporate truth that is the intranet.

The presence of ex-staff is a complete bonus! I’d like to think that most people that have moved on from the company still love the place. Academic institutions and many large companies make an effort to keep in touch with their Alumni and so should we. Plus their perspective on issues has real value. They are just as likely as current staff to be customers and investors.

Oh yes – nearly forgot. It came as no surprise that Legal would be so dismissive. I think it’s time to go and talk to them!