If Email is Dead, What Replaces It?

Last Updated Oct 1, 2010 11:20 AM EDT

People hate email. We read about it all the time, including in this column (but then I whine about a lot of things). Many people claim email is fading away as the malevolent primary tool of our workday and good riddance to it. Sounds good, at first blush.

While the thought of Outlook joining the ranks of my 8-Track , Walkman and Fax Machine in my garage gathering dust might offer a small bit of satisfaction, what would replace it? More importantly, how do we know it wouldn't make things even worse? I mean, the only thing I can imagine more intrusive than my Blackberry would be an implanted chip, which at this point is both impractical and an HR violation.

According to Inder Sidhu it won't be a single tool that replaces email. He's not only the author of "Doing Both-How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth", he's the Sr. Vice President of Strategy and Planning for Cisco's Worldwide Operations and he's given this a lot of thought. Not surprisingly, a big chunk of his plans involve Cisco products like Telepresence and WebEx, but also a variety of other tools. The trick, it seems, is to actually give thought to what you're trying to accomplish and choose the right tool. Sounds like madness to me, but here's what he said:

Inder, Email has changed the way we work forever. While some people (okay, most people) misuse it, what's the big problem?
Email had a great run, but it's an idea that has outlived its usefulness. Our needs have simply evolved. Initially, email was a great way to share a thought with one or more persons who could pore over the idea at their convenience. But it unexpectedly became a document depository. Moreover, it's simply not serving our communication needs like it once did. When we have an immediate need to share some data or get an answer to a question, we send a text or an instant message. When we need to communicate more broadly, we use more effectively social media tools such as Facebook or Twitter. The ways we communicate today are simply different than before.

What are some of the ways managers and their teams work around the problems email can't handle and what tools are they using?
Email does specific things well, but professionals are unlikely to use a single silver bullet for their communication needs. I personally use Twitter and blogging to share big ideas and events with broad audiences. I rely on WebEx for immediate real-time collaboration and document-sharing. And TelePresence enables me to maintain face-to-face contact with colleagues around the world--without stepping on a plane. You simply can't do this with email.

The bottom line is we're in a period of great innovation. And that means embracing new ideas that work for you.

What are some concrete steps a manager should take to create a coherent team communication strategy?
First, managers should familiarize themselves with the latest communication technology, from Twitter to LinkedIn and from WebEx to UStream. That's not easy given the variety of options one has today.

Then take an inventory of what your team using. My gut says you will be surprised by all the many ways and devices people use. This inventory might reveal gaps and inefficiencies, but also some new ideas around social networking and online collaboration. While these tools open communication to the masses, they don't offer the best in scalability and security.

As a result, it's then time to introduce some standardization. So a good manager has to put some processes in place. People need predictability, so they know when to listen to voice mail, when to logon to WebEx or whatever presentation and meeting tool, when to check Twitter, and yes, when to read email.

That seems like more thought than most of us put into our work. What are the costs and benefits of creating a thoughtful communication plan?
The costs of embracing new tools are real. Let's state the obvious upfront: There are learning curves to overcome, best practices to establish and procedures to develop. That's on top of measurable infrastructure costs and IT upgrades. But the benefits, in my view, far outweigh any inconveniences. If you can communicate more effectively and more frequently both internally and externally, you can sell more, support better and extend your reach farther.

Now, a couple of things about what Inder says. First, he's insisting on people carefully considering the right tools for the right jobs and making smart choices. Only a kill-joy would point out the fact that's exactly what happened to email-- it's a very cool tool that people misuse to the point of idiocy. Secondly, he has a vested interest in the success of WebEx, not mentioning two important things:1) the last analysis i saw had 127 competitors to that product and 2) misusing web and video conferencing can (and in some cases already has) lead to the same kind of abuse that has people ready to string up the innocent inventors of email.

It's one thing to pray for and proclaim the death of the evil Email monster. It's something altogether more difficult to make thoughtful decisions about what's next.

For more of his insight,you can follow Inder Sidhu on Twitter
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photo by flickr user dampeebe CC 2.0