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Companies look for email alternatives

More companies are seeking email alternatives to curb an overabundance of information.

Email is slowly declining as the go-to communication tool for enterprises, as other technologies that convey emotion and context become more ubiquitous and easier to use.

As a necessary evil of the workplace, email sending, checking and deleting consumes a large portion of an employee's day. A 2012 study by New York-based consulting firm McKinsey & Company said 28% of an employee's time is devoted to reading and writing emails. By other estimates, employees spend as much as 40% of the day in their inboxes.

As hefty as those percentages seem, they don't take into account the time spent sifting through email for a particular nugget of information that may have gone missing, or organizing emails into intricate folders.

Email technology is roughly 30 years old, yet it remains the shared communication medium among enterprises, with some 700 million business users around the world using it. Still, businesses are beginning to view it is a worker productivity killer and are looking at email alternatives for internal communication.

"One problem with email is that it's thought of as a one-size-fits-all, but, really, it's only a one-size-fits-all for knowledge workers at the desk," said Adam Preset, analyst at Gartner Inc., based in Stamford, Conn.

Moving towards email alternatives

In 2011, Thierry Breton, CEO of French information technology company Atos, garnered worldwide attention when he banned employees from sending emails. The move baffled enterprise users, while Breton reasoned the policy was necessary after an employee survey showed only 20 out of every 200 emails were important.

Other business leaders have since taken smaller steps to provide their employees options for sending and receiving work tasks. Those include investing in more collaboration applications, such as Slack, Spark and Jive.

"Almost everyone retains email, because they need an easy and straightforward mechanism for communicating with external parties," Preset said. "But within teams, you'll see people using chatting applications."

Preset added that Web-conferencing applications, such as Cisco's WebEx, are gaining speed in the hunt for email alternatives.

"You can convey in a remote virtual meeting more information, emotional impact, and visual complexity, much more easily than in a string of text messages or instant messages," he said. "That's very valuable, because these tools make it so you don't have to context switch. It's all right there."

Irwin Lazar, analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill., said enterprise users are in the "early beginnings" of an email evolution.

Once it gets easier and easier to use other tools, people start gravitating to them.
Irwin Lazaranalyst, Nemertes Research

"Once it gets easier and easier to use other tools, people start gravitating to them," Lazar said. "What we're seeing is email getting supplemented by other applications, whether it's simple text or applications that are persistent chat."

Despite rising email discontent, few analysts expect companies to rid themselves of the inbox overnight. Moving away from a core communication tool like email will take time, especially in larger companies.

As an example, Preset pointed to the evolution of the telephone, email's precursor in business communications.   

"We had telephones for a long time and we still have telephones, but the way we access voice services has shifted radically over its history," he said. "You won't get away from voice, but you might get away from what you think of as a traditional telephone."

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What impact would an email ban have on your company?
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We use Webex, but I don't really consider it as an alternative to email. I can think of several scenarios off the top of my head in which sending an email is more efficient. I work in QA, and so sometimes I will work in an application that has thrown an exception and sent an email alert to me. I then forward it to the developer, along with the steps to reproduce the issue, so that they have the complete exception and all of the information that they need to troubleshoot. 
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Many of my clients were government agencies and financial organizations. Banning of external email would mean a shutdown.
As for internal.. Certain things must be recorded and documented, email is still very good for that.
Many people have a good discretion using email and "reply all". Others need to be trained. No tools will replace that.
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The best alternative, of course, is a face to face conversation. But even for those sending an email beforehand may help to make it more productive. There are also different personality types - some people prefer receiving new information through a talk, some like to read the material first. Email is a still good transport, just needs to be used properly.
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