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E-mail: the revival

After having been accused of being a source of inefficiency and information overload, e-mail is in the process of renewing itself with sometimes disruptive improvements in terms of user experience quality and functionality. This could durably reposition e-mail at the center of collaboration tools.

Email, a criticized tool, but still pervasive in business

Although e-mail has been introduced without much ado in businesses in the 80s and 90s, it has finally imposed itself and has even revolutionized the modes of exchange in business, making them more direct, rapid and less dependent on hierarchical organizations. However, a victim of its own success, it has been criticized for being too used or misused, and ultimately for generating unnecessary and bothersome information flow, where synchronous communications or publications within communities seemed more adequate.

Indeed, recent years have seen various attempts to limit “infobesity”, particularly e-mail overload. We can mention for example days without e-mail, guidelines for choosing the right communication tool for every use case, initiatives to replace e-mail with a mix of synchronous communications (IM, voice, video conferencing) and especially of enterprise social networks, more suited to collaboration within a group. However, except for some specific cases such as the “zero e-mail” Atos project, we must admit that email is still the dominant tool for most businesses.

It is in this context that e-mail has recently been subject of many evolutions announced by major players in the Internet and information technologies field such as IBM, Microsoft and Google, while in parallel Facebook said it wanted to develop a professional version of its social network, and that small players like Hop or Wemail also proposed enhanced e-mail services for consumers.

Renewal in the presentation

The first improvement that appears quite recurrently in various e-mail services, for businesses or consumers, relates to presentation ergonomics and classification abilities. Indeed, benefiting from the experience of the user interfaces of chat tools, SMS or IM conversations, new e-mail versions compete with themselves in terms of ergonomics of conversation threads, classification by sender, by community or by subject, linked with the address book or possibly with other collaboration tools, while possibly implementing a tool learning the user’s ranking habits. One of the key interests is to facilitate the prioritization of messages, by allowing a more synthetic view of the entire mailbox or by automatically lowering the priority of certain e-mails, as in Microsoft Clutter. This may also be accompanied by grading facilities on attachments that take into account various media and formats.

A unifying tool

The second major trend regarding the evolution of e-mail that is more specific to businesses, deals with the integration of e-mail with the various enterprise tools, be it tools for collaboration, communications or knowledge management. This is in line with a recognized benefit of e-mail over corporate social networks; indeed, if e-mail has so little given way to corporate social networks, it is in part because it is natively integrated with the employee’s address book and calendar, while the corporate social network is often seen as an additional silo to manage. This fairly central position of e-mail in the employee’s work environment has been expanded by some tool editors (Verse IBM, Microsoft Delve) in order to add integration with communication tools (IM, voice, video…), with corporate social networks and the various document repositories, or even integration with business tools.

A new potential based on content analysis

Now, the most disruptive evolution probably concerns the analysis of the content of e-mails and all the features that can result. Indeed, in recent years already, tools such as Xobni, Mailstrom, ClearContext or Cortana have appeared on the market that allow to perform a first level of e-mail analysis by keywords so as to reorganize the inbox. With Google Inbox, e-mail content analysis goes further to display more explicit titles, to summarize in a few sentences a whole discussion thread, to classify e-mails, or even to trigger actions based on their content. This obviously raises privacy issues that bring tool editors to distinguish between mail wizard-type functions, only visible by and under the control of the employee, and business information management functions that use more largely content analysis on directories and corporate social networks. Nevertheless, the prospects seem enormous. When is the employee going to benefit from the power of a Watson to help him answer certain mails?

Better manage information before collaborating

In the end, while enterprise social networks have promised for years a fabulous potential by opening enriched collaboration functionalities, it actually seems that this is a less urgent objective than better manage information, which surges from all sides, overloads tools and fills agendas. Although we had imagined that information could be processed and analyzed only when shared on corporate networks or common directories, current evolutions suggest that it is at the individual level that such progress may well have more impact. The question is now to know to what extent the enterprise may or may not associate this gain in individual performance of its employees with some collective intelligence counterpart.

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