Email plays a central role in business today, to the point where it has in many organisations become as official a communications medium as paper and ink. The problem is that over the last decade or so, the way in which we use email has evolved from a simple communications mechanism into many other things, for example a tool for sharing and collaborating around documents, or managing group discussions. The ever-increasing flexibility, functionality and richness we have within our desktop email applications means that email is now seen and used by many as an all-encompassing collaboration platform, rather than simply a communications tool.

However, this growing dependence on email has the side effect that the volume of emails that individuals have to handle on a daily basis is becoming unmanageable, as we heard from CIOs Adam Gerrard, CIO of Avis Europe and Chris Puttick from Oxford Archaeology during this month's debate.

Both agreed that although email was a vital tool within their businesses, it was starting to creak under the pressure, particularly in terms of the way in which people are able to digest the constant stream of messages they receive. While each has taken a different approach (with Avis implementing an online community environment using Atlassian's Confluence product, and Oxford Archaeology switching to a web-based mail platform from Zimbra), both CIOs are looking to provide new alternatives to support collaboration outside the familiar confines of email, and our own research suggests that, while these are both "early adopter" organisations, this is an increasingly common position among CIOs.

Despite the inevitable costs associated with this growing volume of email, compounded by flaws relating to how email handles the many copies of an attachment which may be sent around during an email-based discussion among a team of people, for example, it is interesting that neither organisation cited cost savings as their primary driver (although neither intended to increase their overall costs through this new investment). Instead, the emphasis was on finding tools that are better at facilitating collaboration.

It is important to note that in both examples there was no suggestion of replacing email with these new alternatives; it's about positioning email as part of a group of collaborative tools, each of which is suited to a particular activity. The challenge of course is that people in general don't want to have to think about which tool to use, or to move between multiple different collaboration tools in order to work effectively. They want to have a seamlessly integrated solution which brings together all the organisation's collaborative tools – be it email, instant messaging, discussion forums, wikis, social networking or web conferencing, for example – enabling the individual to focus on collaboratively carrying out their job, rather than worrying about the technology.

We are at a point now where things will start to change: after decades of stagnation in the email market and overwhelming domination by Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, we are starting to see new, web-based email competition in the guise of Google and more recently Cisco and IBM, as well as new blueprints for what the future of collaboration might look like – notably Google Wave and IBM's Project Vulcan. These developments are driven by demand in the market for something better, and over the next few years we will see these new alternatives evolve and improve until they coincide with the market's readiness to adopt them. Email is not going away, but its time of domination is certainly coming to an end.

Response Summary

What is the future of email?

CIO Debate part 5: Mike Altendorf argues email management should be outsourced

CIO Debate part 4: Email remains critical, but is remains a burden for CIOs

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