Blog post

Gen Y’ers Will Kill Enterprise Email? Not So Fast

By Craig Roth | January 05, 2011 | 8 Comments

CommunicationAttention Management

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.”

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Comments are closed


  • brianlmerritt says:

    Hi Craig,

    I agree we will sadly never kill off email, but unified communications applications now mean that instant messaging is often more effective.

    You can form a group, gain consensus (or demand adherence), and if there is confusion share an application or 3 to ensure everyone is on the same page.

    Out of my last 32 communications sent, 20 were email and 12 instant messaging.

    Just waiting for more of Gen Y to go up the ranks here so we can further reduce email 😉

  • Kim Mahan says:

    I would agree that emails can’t be replaced entirely by instant messaging, but the 2.0 toolkit contains far more than IM & SMS.

    This is a blog post, and I am leaving a comment, which others can see and add to. That is far more efficient than if this had been a mass email, and I replied to you.

    What the social platforms provide is a better way to handle one-to-many, and many-to-many conversations. I don’t think it is young vs. old that will determine usage, it will continue to be a choice of the right tool for the right job. Email did not completely obliterate snail mail, but it certainly changed its importance and how it is being used.

    I expect that the 2.0 tools (blogs, microblogs, and social sharing features) will do the same to email.

  • Jeff Mann says:

    I think that many of those who expected the incoming crop of employees would change the enterprise grossly underestimated the power of culture in an organization. If everyone in an organization is accustomed to getting instructions by email, then a few people joining it are unlikely to change it. They are more likely to adopt the norms of the majority, which is what we have been seeing. When they are no longer a small minority, perhaps that will change — or they will have internalized the existing norms by then — and we are doomed.

  • Gyula Csom says:

    Social networking might kill email, but I hope it won’t… not until it provides at least the same level of privacy and independence for enterprises as email does.

    I see the current SN model as a centralized one where services are concentrated among a few companies (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). On the other hand email maybe an old scool technique but it has clearly one advantage: it builds upon a distributed model. Your messages kept private (well at least not captured by a single entity). You retain your independence (at least you have many options to select from including on-premise and SaaS).

    Hence if SN in its current form killed email then the level of privacy and independence would decrease to an unacceptable degree.

    Meanwhile a decentralized model for SN seems to be a challanging issue. I guess that the current modell needs to mature before we can start to build distributed social networks (ie. social network of social networks).

    Bottom line: I donno whether SN will kill email or not, I just hope that it waits until the technology of interconnected social networks emerges:)

  • Craig Roth says:

    Some good points by everyone so far. It is picking the right tool that matters, which some journalists forget in their excitement to pitch the new vs. old angle. Maybe email is no longer the right tool for teens in their social lives, but that is a different tool need than enterprise information workers.

    As Jeff says, culture is also an important part of the equation. Speed of adoption depends on the size of the related network that must also adopt.

    To Gyula’s point, I hope SN services will add more privacy to their communication mechanisms. But somehow it will happen – it goes against their business model.

  • Craig Roth says:

    Brian – I find myself using IM more often too, mostly where the presence is useful (“r u there?”). I was in a conference call with a few dozen analysts today and we found it useful to have a backchannel IM session. It was a better way to introduce topics or plug in side conversations without interrupting the flow.

  • Allison says:

    If you are writing an email with more than three paragraphs ,maybe you should just call instead…. No one read it anyways.

  • Rich says:

    Ok, I’ll post a message. Now wait, I have to email it to the people who don’t have an RSS feed. Now I’ll go to my Facebook page and update that. Now I’ll twitter about it. I’m impatient, so I’ll instant message a buddy. And then I’ll call some of my friends who don’t use any of that stuff.

    Starting to see the point yet? Pick the right tool to reach your audience. Email, IM, social media, fax, – it’s all useful, but not exclusive.