E-mail evolves to stay relevant in Web 2.0 era

E-mail systems will continue to thrive as it is strongly embedded in office culture, but will evolve to integrate social elements to meet new business user demands, analysts say.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Even as today's office arena gets inundated by social media elements, this does not necessarily mean the death of e-mail systems as the latter is heavily entrenched in corporate culture, analysts argued. Rather, it will evolve to include more Web 2.0 features to meet end-users' needs, they added.

Nick Ingelbrecht, research director at Gartner, for one, pointed out that despite the increased proliferation of social media and Web 2.0 at the workplace, the e-mail remains "alive and well". He also dismissed reports on the imminent demise of the e-mail platform, saying that these predictions are "exaggerated".

The analyst said e-mail remains a useful tool because it is good at delivering a "rich string of communications". Its benefits include being able to send personal notes or broadcasted messages to many people, as well as the ability to send attachments such as photos and documents, Ingelbrecht noted in his e-mail.

Social networking services such as Facebook or instant messaging (IM) have their benefits, but rather than compete with e-mail, they meet a different set of communication needs that are more interactive and intimate, Ingelbrecht stated.

The Gartner analyst also said that people will use different communication channels--be it e-mail, Facebook, IM or Twitter--depending on where they are, who they are talking to, what they are saying or doing, and what tools of communications are available at hand. "[In short,] different needs require different communication solutions at the workplace," he said.

Steve Hodgkinson, research director at Ovum, concurred, adding that e-mail alone is used for a wide range of purposes other than messaging. These include promotional material sent from marketers or announcements and notifications from financial institutions for online commercial services such as Internet banking.

Additionally, for many people, the inbox functions as a media feed, a marketing channel, a workflow system, a day-to-day content management system, and an archive or corporate record, he noted.

While enterprise 2.0 collaboration platforms might be able to do these tasks better, Hodgkinson said the existence of e-mails will not be threatened because the latter has long been a staple of office culture and work habits.

"Corporate cultures and work practices change slowly, and e-mail, for all its faults, is simple, direct and useful. Asking people to simply switch platforms misses the point about how deeply entrenched the use of e-mail is in people's everyday work rhythms," the Ovum analyst stated.

New social collaboration and IM tools have their merits, but the pace of adoption for enterprise 2.0 communication platforms is "steady, not explosive", Hodgkinson said. Furthermore, it will take time for an organization's IT department to set up the required programs, and for users to change their behavior, he added.

Nonetheless, Hodgkinson did not deny that as more Generation Y, or employees born in the late 1980s onwards, enter the workforce, they have brought their Facebook and Twitter preferences to established organizations.

Yet, he expressed skepticism over just how much this demographic of workers will want to mix their work and personal lives using social media platforms in the long run. He believes that the Generation Y workforce would turn to their corporate e-mail accounts for work purposes and leave social media communications for more informal situations, he explained.

Evolution, not revolution
Hodgkinson also mentioned that new enterprise collaboration tools are likely to integrate e-mail rather than totally replace it.

An earlier Gartner report in November seems to corroborate the Ovum analyst's observation. The report stated that enterprise e-mail and social networks are no longer mutually exclusive and, as a result, new collaboration styles are being created that reflect this overlap.

Google's e-mail service, Gmail, for instance, has video chat and phone call functions. This fusion of e-mail with social features is something systems analyst Fredrick Khoo is familiar with at the office. The IT professional told ZDNet Asia: "We still use e-mail, definitely. It's just that it doesn't look like the e-mail from 10 years ago."

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