It’s E-mail, Jim, but Not as We Know It

Brad Shimmin
Brad Shimmin

Summary Bullets:

  • Reports foretelling the death of e-mail are greatly exaggerated.  Thanks to its ubiquity and compatibility, e-mail communication is poised to outlive the Facebook generation.
  • However, for e-mail to flourish within the enterprise, it must be seen in an entirely new light, as a medium capable of contextualizing, prioritizing, and thereby elevating the efficacy of this type of content.

In season 1, episode 25 of Star Trek (the original series), Captain James T. Kirk and his indispensable science officer Mr. Spock come face to face with an apparently hostile creature (the Horta) capable of moving through solid rock.  (Yes, I’m a Trekkie.)  As it turns out, the creature’s malice was in response to a lack of understanding on the part of human kind, who failed to look beyond the alien nature of the silicon-based Horta to see the fact that it, like they, was only trying to protect itself and its loved ones.  Thankfully, after some initial missteps, the two parties were able to find commonality and begin working together very effectively.

E-mail is no different than the Horta.  Right under our noses it seems this tried-and-true means of communication has suddenly become entirely foreign, something very out of place in today’s event stream-savvy, notification-driven enterprise workforce of socially networked Generation Y’ers.  Really though, just the opposite is true.  E-mail is and remains a significant contributor to the corporate knowledge base.  For that reason, most enterprise social networking vendors have built deep hooks into the likes of Microsoft Exchange and IBM Notes/Domino.  This ensures that e-mail content does not get lost amid the social clatter.  Yet, from the perspective of a corporate user, e-mail still looks and feels like a fish out of water, or a Horta out of rock as it were.

What it needs is for enterprise social networking to sprinkle its magic dust on the corporate inbox itself.  Not that e-mail messages need to begin behaving like an event stream post, but why can’t an e-mail inbox benefit from a few of the lessons learned by enterprise social networking vendors?  There are many tools and technologies from which to choose , but first and foremost in my mind would be the addition of social analytics as found in event streams, namely smart filtering and recommendation.

A social e-mail inbox is one that prioritizes messages based upon your relationship to the sender (nearness, communications frequency, nature of relationship, etc.).  That inbox should also provide you with some social context surrounding a selected message, information such as other, similar e-mail threads with a given recipient or similar discussions with other recipients.  It should show you content from the broader social network itself that is contextual and relevant to a given message.  Moreover, it should organize itself according to your current social context (in the office, working within a given project/community, chatting with a specific user, etc.).

Such efforts are already underway to one degree or another within most major e-mail systems (Microsoft Exchange, IBM Notes/Domino, Novell GroupWise, Zoho Office, and Google Gmail), enabling your inbox to remain an inbox while also behaving like an enterprise social network.  That way, even if e-mail is to remain an alien, carbon-based life form at its core, it will understand how to work harmoniously with the most important asset there is: you.

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