Will new workers prefer social networking and texting to old-fashioned email, decimating the use of enterprise email and changing the way information workers communicate? Pundits say yes, but I’ll take the tougher argument and say no. Or at least, not as much as we’re led to believe.
The argument that youngster’s shift in communication preferences will follow through to the workplace is easy to make. The New York Times reported that email usage is declining (“E-Mail Gets an Instant Makeover”). comScore shows visits to major email sites “peaked in November 2009 and have since slid 6 percent; visits among 12- to 17-year-olds fell around 18 percent.” The Pew Internet and American Life Project shows email is clearly not used as often for contacting friends as – well- anything else. The latest figures (Sept 09) show 11% have used email to contact friends daily versus 54% for texting and 24% for instant messaging. And there is a social stigma often attributed to email users as stick-in-the-muds, like the 65-year-old quoted in the NYT article: “I don’t want to be one of those elders who castigate young peoples’ form of communication, but the art of language, the beauty of language, is being lost.”
Fine – I don’t dispute the stats, nor the circumstantial evidence I see on streets and in trains and cars (!) every day. But does this imply new workers will cause similar impact in enterprises? I stop short of saying they’ll bring new ways of working into the office rather than leaving some at home or in the dorm. Their work as a 17 year old is fundamentally different than work in a large business or organization. A corollary to this statement is that technology choices will continue to be heavily determined by suitability of the technology to the message rather than fads, trends, or culture. If that 65-year-old woman, or a young lady, has a need to send three paragraphs, uninterrupted, to a very limited audience it is the practicality of email, not an appeal to its “beauty”, that will drive its usage.
To see whether messages in a workplace could be IM’d instead of emailed, I did a non-scientific review of 27 emails I sent for a few days last week. I wanted to see how many of these were short enough to be conducive to IM, SMS, or social networking sites.
Not many. 9 of those were quick responses that I could have IM’d, such as “10:00 doesn’t work, how about 10:30?”. But the rest were longer responses. In fact, 7 were multiple paragraphs. And even some shorter responses still contained a name, such as “Field Research Study: Facilitating Social Participation” that would have made me wait until I had a keyboard in front of me. And none of the emails were public enough I would have used Twitter (even our internal Yammer) or Facebook instead.
Sure, teenagers may not need to construct longer responses two thirds of the time. They may send scads of short messages back and forth quickly that could equal a long response over time, but my emails often included several back and forth iterations too, each of a paragraph or more so they still place more demands on the technology. It’s interesting to note that with Facebook’s email “hitting the enter key can immediately fire off the message, à la instant messaging, instead of creating a new paragraph.” As my email showed, that behavior wouldn’t work in my workplace.
I know this is heresy to those who see web 2.0 as a cultural revolution as well as a technological one. As an advisor to enterprise owners of communication and collaboration infrastructure, I agree that technologies other than email need to be provided and their usage encouraged. Many of these other technologies – such as discussion groups, blogs, instant messaging, and document libraries – rightfully offload some messages that would formerly have been in email.
My prediction is that there will be a minor shift in email usage due to the habits of new employees, but it will take many years for a preponderance of the people they communicate with at work to also want to get and receive IMs. What shift does occur away from email will be due more to availability of more suitable alternatives rather than cultural preference. New workers will continue to use their IM’ing habits with their friends, but will adapt to email life in the office. The NYT story describes a 23 year old technology consultant in New York who “spends all day on email at his office. When he leaves it behind, he picks up his phone and communicates with friends almost entirely via texts.”