The email In-box can be a magical place. Once opened, it has the capability to soak up a good healthy chunk of your working day. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most small business owners, regardless of what your business does, are simply drowning in email.Don't get me wrong - there is a place for e-mail. It’s the workhorse of how we all communicate with our customers, suppliers and colleagues. For decades, email stood unchallenged as the primary tool for communication and for intercompany collaboration it remains the primary vehicle for business communication.
Email is a great tool! However, at the heart of the pain that most business people experience with it is that email is often not used as it is intended. You really shouldn't be using email as a collaboration tool, and here are three reasons why.
Email isn’t a Document Management System.
Knowledge dies in mailboxes.
Have you ever been in the situation where an important, and probably urgent, requirement has arisen for a specific document or piece of information to be resurrected? It’s not uncommon in many small businesses to have key staff working in the business for many years amassing a wealth of valuable information, much of which may be hidden in folders, subfolders or, even worse, archived pst backups of long departed ex-employees.
Whilst there is some fantastic functionality in the search capability in modern email applications like Outlook to assist in locating messages, the reality is that the architecture of the system is not designed as a document management system. By design, email is personal in nature. We each have an email address and whether you are the infinite inbox unlimited guy or the rare inbox zero hero, the system lacks an awareness of business context and emails pile up waiting for something to be done to them.
Email also lacks core functionality such as version control.
How often have you heard the conversation “Could you send me the final version, Carol?” ... “Umm, which version is the right one?” Tonnes of so-called "final versions" of documents live in our organisations. To effectively organise and control them, document management systems, such as Microsoft SharePoint, are a far better tool for your organisational knowledge management toolkit than using email.
Email is just not built for collaboration.
Email isn’t social.
Email has come a long way. Improvements have included web-based email providing enhanced mobility, through to more advanced features available in Microsoft Outlook and Google Gmail which address increased search capability and improving information management. However, the fact remains that email is still a personal tool for individuals as opposed to a collaborative system used by the team as a whole.
I'm sure you would agree that email cannot possibly hope to compare as a tool for collaboration. By its very nature, email is a linear system. Your messages are in Outlook, exclusively. Outlook dictates that you’ll be looking at those messages in chronological order, or by some other email attribute. Your meetings aren’t in your threads, and it’s a nightmare to locate the files you need unless you find the message that it was attached on linked from.
Email can be abused as a tool to chat in real time. I’m sure we have all experienced the constant interruption of email conversations preventing us from getting into the groove, disrupting us with a machine gun ding of new mail alerts.
A very wise manager I used to work for set up a simple rule in his outlook application to delay the sending of his emails by five minutes after he clicked on the send button. Now, he wasn’t a particularly angry man that would be in the habit of banging off fiery tirades. He was, however, mindful that like words from our mouths, once an email was released into the wild it was often difficult to recall. Many an awkward issue has been caused by the accidental address in the cc field.
So, what are the alternatives to using email?
Odds are you are already paying for a subscription to the alternative options. Quite often, it’s simply a matter of understanding a) what the capabilities of the tools are, and b) how your organisation works.
Document Management Systems and Internal Social Networking software have been progressively replacing email for business communication. Whether employees are logging into a community intranet site and getting up to speed on the latest conversations, or adding events and meetings to a shared calendar, they are spending more and more time outside of their email inboxes and connecting with their colleagues and customers. Which you would agree is a good thing, right?
If you haven’t already had a look at it, get into Microsoft Teams. It’s not JUST an app for online chatting with work colleagues. Teams is essentially a framework around which Office 365 applications and tools attach. The vision is that it is a central pane where teams can collaborate in real time - by text, voice and even video. Document libraries can be shared seamlessly from your SharePoint library. Tasks can be tracked, communicated and managed by the Planner application which plugs in effortlessly. Importantly, all the conversations that are going on are accessible to the entire group, opening possibilities and reducing risk.
The Teams platform is very cool, and is something we use in our own organisation. I have heard Microsoft refer to it as "the scaffolding of Office 365". The vision is that the tools your team needs are neatly organised as a set of Tabs, which pin content to the top of each channel. You can separate the organisation into specific departments and have a communication 'channel' for each smaller team. If I’m viewing a document, I can see and contribute to the conversation that has happened around it, and edit it in the native app, online or within Teams. I can get a link to the document from a Planner task, share it and create a conversation around it. I can even reply to a Connector post generated from a third-party system to discuss the outcome. If I schedule a team meeting, that can be seen in the channel too. If people send an instant message from inside the meeting then that’s also in the thread and we’ve noted that in a future update, our Skype for Business meeting recordings and notes taken during the meeting will also be glued into the thread.
Tools like Teams certainly won’t replace email, which is useful for snappy messages and formal communication, but they will complement it for better collaboration. As business users and in our personal lives, we will continue to shape and adopt communications technologies to embrace a more flexible, flowing and comfortable way of communicating.
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