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Leadership

Email Is The New Pony Express—And It's Time To Put It Down

Email, like paper letters delivered by horseback, has become an unproductivity tool and may just be the biggest time killer in the modern workplace. Here's where companies are headed next.

In early 2011, the CEO of a French IT company issued an usual memorandum. He banned email. Employees were discouraged from sending or receiving internal messages, with the goal of eradicating email within 18 months. Critics scoffed. Workers rebelled. But Thierry Breton, the CEO of Atos, has stuck to his guns, reducing message volume by an estimated 20%. His company, by the way, has 74,000 employees in 48 countries.

Email is familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to use. But it might just be the biggest killer of time and productivity in the office today. I’ll admit my vendetta is personal. I run a company, HootSuite, which is focused on disrupting how the world communicates using social media. Yet each day my employees and I send each other thousands of emails, typing out addresses and patiently waiting for replies like we were mailing letters on the Pony Express.

As we’ve expanded from 20 to 200 employees over the last two years, the headaches have only grown. Anyone with an inbox knows what I’m talking about. A dozen emails to set up a meeting time. Documents attached and edited and reedited until no one knows which version is current. Urgent messages drowning in forwards and cc's and spam.

It’s not just me who thinks email’s days are numbered. (In fact, AOL is quietly working on a major email overhaul that wold look like mashup of Twitter, Pinterest, and Gmail.) Among 18-24 year olds, time spent on webmail has declined 34% in the last year alone, and nearly 50% since 2010, according to comScore’s 2012 U.S. Digital Future in Focus report.



So what's the solution? Our idea: Turn email into a conversation. Get rid of the inbox. Build an online platform where departments can post and respond to messages on central discussion threads, Facebook-style. Then integrate that with Twitter and Facebook so great ideas can be broadcast—with a click—to the world. Conversations isn’t a revolutionary concept; it’s a duh-it’s-about-time concept. And it’s worked for us and 5 million clients. A year from now, we may well be reading email its last rites. Here’s why:

Email has become an unproductivity tool. Right now, the typical corporate user spends 2 hours and 14 minutes every day reading and responding to email, according to McKinsey’s 2012 Social Economy report. Our inboxes have become an open door for anything and everything, some of which is pure spam and most of which is neither time-sensitive nor relevant in the here and now. The average business user wades through 114 emails a day, which works out to 41,610 messages a year (or one email every 12.6 minutes of your life).

Email is linear, not collaborative. Email was never intended for collaborative work. Try setting up a meeting time with a group on email and that becomes painfully obvious. Messages flood in, getting out of sync and leaving users scrolling madly to track the conversation. A better option: Facebook-style discussion threads where multiple employees can post, reply, and view centrally in real time.

Email is not social. Email is where good ideas go to die. Brilliant messages race across the Internet at light speed only to end up trapped in an inbox. The clear advantage of social platforms is that content is shared and reshared among whole communities of followers, triggering the viral cascade that makes social media so powerful. Using internal networks and discussion threads instead of email, enterprises can instantly broadcast innovation and crowdsource solutions company-wide. HootSuite's Conversations takes this up a notch, enabling employees to amplify select messages to Twitter and Facebook, sharing ideas with the world at a click.

Your inbox is a black hole. You may be able to quickly and easily search your inbox, but odds are the rest of your department or company can’t. And all that locked-up knowledge represents a massive, wasted reserve of internal expertise. Office productivity could be improved by up to 14% just by moving those emails to a searchable, central discussion thread, message board, or wiki, according to a 2012 McKinsey report.

Sharing documents on email is a joke. Let’s set aside the inconvenience of uploading and attaching files, over and over again. The real trouble with sharing on email starts when multiple recipients download and modify a document. It’s all too easy to lose track of which revision is the latest, leading to redundant edits and wasted time. An infinitely better solution is to put a single document in one, shared location accessible to all stakeholders. Using tools like Google Drive, history can be tracked and multiple collaborators can edit simultaneously.

Seeking the path of least resistance, the next generation of office workers are finding better, faster, easier ways to communicate. It’s about time.

Are you trying new alternatives to email? Tell us about it in the comments below.

—Author Ryan Holmes is the CEO of HootSuite, a social media management system with 5 million users, including 79 of the Fortune 100 companies.

[Image: Flickr user Missouri Division of Tourism]