As we come back from vacation to an inbox filled with hundreds of emails, most of which we don’t need to read, we might let out an anguished bellow and ask: when will we fix email?
Everyone knows how awful it is: you get flooded, it’s pretend work, it’s inefficient, and so on. And everyone is looking for a way to fix email. And every once in a while, a new app comes along that promises to fix email. And every time, it fails. The reason why is that it can’t.
Sorry. It bothers me as much as it does you, but it’s just the truth. You’re not going to fix email. Here’s why.
The simplest reason why email can’t be replaced is its 100% saturation. In enterprises today, everyone — and that means everyone — has email.
In business strategy, we often hear about network effects, whereby the value of a network is the square of the members of a network. This is thought to be a great competitive advantage, because network effects mean your business grows very fast as the network grows, and then is very hard to displace. eBay, for example, has a network effect: Because all the sellers are there, that’s where the buyers go; because that’s where the buyers are, that’s where the sellers go. That makes eBay’s business very robust.
But actually, very few networks achieve saturation, meaning that (for practical purposes) everyone is on the network. And there is a very big difference between using a communication network with almost everyone, and using one where there is everyone. Email is the latter. Alternatives to email, no matter how popular, are the former.
If displacing an ordinary network is hard, displacing a network with saturation is impossible. The barriers are too high. Everyone is already checking email, so everyone sends email. Because everyone sends email, everybody has to check email. It will never end.
Social networks don’t take care of all use cases and don’t have saturation
One big promise for “fixing email” is enterprise social networks – Jive, Yammer, and many others. To some extent, they have helped things. But anyone in a company that uses those social networks knows that they haven’t gotten rid of email. They can actually improve on some common use cases for email, like task management or quick-fire collaborative conversations. But they don’t take care of all, or even most, use cases. Your boss wants to send information about a major new corporate reorganization or strategy to all 150 people in his organization at once? That’s an email. A vendor wants to touch base in a semi-formal way without interrupting you via phone or email? That’s an email.