Looking at e-mail from a feature perspective, e-mail allows us to easily compose messages and send them to one or many receivers within seconds. Besides that, we can carbon copy recipients who should only be informed, attach files and forward received e-mails…among other things.
If we instead look at e-mail from a benefit perspective, it is easy to see why it has become so popular. E-mail can help us get in contact with new people, keep in touch with friends and colleagues, get hold of valuable information, apply for a job, initiate and maintain relationships…in general, e-mail is a good means of communication when it comes to contacting friends or colleagues and it can be used for virtually any purpose of communication. Add to that that (almost) everybody has an email address, even though it might sometimes be hard to find out which e-mail address they have.
The power of e-mail comes partly from its ease-of-use, but mostly from the fact that it overcomes the boundaries of time and space. People living or working in different locations and time zones can communicate with each other asynchronously – they don’t both have to be at their computers at the same time to exchange a message. The only alternative we had to communicate asynchronously with other persons do before that was to use regular mail, which was slow and expensive.
E-mail also makes it possible to communicate simultaneously with more than one person and to attach electronic documents, images or files. And as is a more subtle way of communication than using the phone; you don't need to have anything really important to say before you pick up the phone...sorry, before you write your e-mail and click the send-button. This makes people more willing to communicate. And so does the fact that messages sent via email are interchanged at virtually no cost.
Despite all the good things with email, it is often put to blame for not supporting collaboration in a good way. It is especially ill suited content-centric collaboration where two or more people are to collaborate on content. Still, blaming e-mail as a tool is the wrong thing to do. We should rather blame ourselves for how we use email. Emailing has become a habit. We use email without reflecting over how we use it. We don’t ask ourselves if there are better ways to do some of all the things we use e-mail for. This leads to misuse and overuse, with consequences which might obscure the real value of email. And we don’t tap in to the value of new ways of working supported by other tools and technologies.
The overuse of email is not primarily a problem for individuals, but more so for communities and enterprises where efficient communication, collaboration and knowledge exchange is essential. We all know that habits are hard to change and changing habits is a great challenge for enterprises. They need to constantly question and change old habits and one of the habits they need to question and change is how they use email. Looking a bit broader, they need to reflect on current attitudes and behaviors and identify opportunities for improvement in how people communicate, share information and collaborate with each other. Speaking in terms of technology, they need to look beyond traditional and well established tools and technologies such as e-mail and evaluate how other tools and technologies can support more efficient communication, collaboration and knowledge exchange. This is the obvious answer to the question why enterprises should take a serious look at Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, blogs, RSS, social bookmarking, and social software. They should try to see how these might benefit them. If they succeed in this, email is likely to regain some of its original glory.