IBM’s Brill Says Email is Overrated
April 4, 2011 Dan Burger
Email is a big part of business. Before terms like collaboration and social business began dominating the lexicon, email was the digital darling that replaced much of the snail mail and faxing that relied on “hard copies” and filing cabinets. Last week, IBM emailed me. The media relations person wrote to say Ed Brill, the director of messaging for the Lotus division, was in the mood to talk about email and its role as a collaboration tool. That struck me as odd.
It’s strange because Brill and the other executives at the Lotus division of Software Group normally don’t have much to say about email, unless it’s to claim the number of Notes users exceeds the number of Outlook users based on some survey cooked up and paid for by the Lotus camp. This is always an amusing activity because Microsoft will quickly retort by saying that any talk of Notes being as popular as Outlook is more baloney than an Oscar Mayer factory produces in a week. In turn, IBM accuses Microsoft of concocting surveys that twist the truth much like a clown twists balloon animals. And on and on it goes.
But, like I said, Brill typically doesn’t speak email. He is, however, fluent in the language of collaboration. He can talk a Big Blue streak when it comes to social business, but seldom does he mention email when doing so.
I have to believe it’s because in the I-can-out-innovate-you world of information technology, email is about as fun to talk about as laxatives. There are other parallels in that comparison, but they are better left unsaid.
Brill throws confetti in the air every time he mentions terms like activity streams, social business frameworks, or the reinvented inbox.
So I’m asking myself why would I get an email from IBM saying Brill wants to talk about the importance of email as a collaboration tool? I know one thing. It’s not to sell more Notes/Domino on the IBM i platform. No one at IBM wants to talk about that.
The email from IBM points out that organizations consider email their most important, mission-critical application. It says the number of business email users will increase from 800 million in 2009 to 970 million by 2014. And it goes on to say email has evolved from static one-to-one exchanges to become an inbox for social framework. That should have been my clue to what this was all about: email is static and social framework is dynamic. The type of email Brill gets excited about delivers updates from social business environment. A couple of examples would be activity notifications from your favorite networking sites or an alert that a new comment has been posted on the blog you’re following.
So email, according to Brill, is destined to become more of a support tool for other types of communication with greater collaboration capabilities than email could ever provide.
From Brill’s point of view, email as an alerting mechanism is a more effective attention-management device that allows the user to choose when to be attentive to interactions with external parties who might be using various collaborative tools such as Facebook, the company intranet blogs, or sharing files related to a specific project. “It is no longer this sort of whack-a-mole, first-in-first-out kind of an approach (associated with traditional email),” Brill says.
“More people are going to write comments on blogs if they see that the interaction is taking place in that threaded discussion,” Brill says. “They are not going to resort to private emails.”
Although email is certainly part of collaboration and is the biggest and most often used tool in the shed for most companies, Brill appears to be locating it on the other side of the tracks. Email will continue to have its place, but it won’t be a place in the sun. To make a distinction between email and social networking forms of communication, like Twitter and blogs, he describes email as “faceless communication.”
“The reinvented inbox is about what is relevant to me as an individual in the context of the business I’m connected to every day,” he says. “It is very much about the social business process. It is less about a means to distribute reports or coordinate project milestones or some of the things email has been used for in the past. Those aren’t good uses of email. It (email) was used because it was the pervasive communications mechanism.”
In making his point, Brill talks about the notion of an activities stream.
“The things that come into my in box are more action-oriented, more activity-oriented than some of the process-oriented communication that had been taking place in email in years past,” he says.
If Wheaties put social networking champions on their cereal boxes, Brill would be their guy.
I mentioned the role email plays in the so-called paperless office and how it plays a part in streamlining a business process like accounts payable and accounts receivable.
“I don’t think email is going in the direction of such things as the paperless office and for the purpose of such things as accounts payable and accounts receivable,” Brill says. “I think that is what we’ve done in the past because it’s the thing that I can always get to and is accessible by everybody in the company. But that is more of a distribution mechanism than an interactive social process. I see that activity (AP/AR) taking place in file repositories like in our Quickr Connections products or other systems that reach out to email when needed with activities notifications and the like. But the users don’t feel like they have to do everything in their inboxes. They can go to the appropriate social tool to manage those types of interactions.”
Email is the square peg that doesn’t fit in the round hole of Brill’s view of business collaboration. The email system is not the place where information should be integrated and distributed, as he sees it. And collaboration tools and capabilities should be what the users want to use–what they are already working with rather than requiring users to leave that context.
I guess my problem is that I don’t want to leave the context of email in the first place.