It's been less than a year since I wrote a post in which I asked if it's the end of the e-mail age. I cited a FederalComputerWeek article that mentioned several government agencies' efforts to reduce their dependence on e-mail, including the North Carolina Division of Child Development's introduction of Microsoft's SharePoint and the Navy's use of wikis.
After my recent discussion with Jeremy Roche, CEO of FinancialForce.com, a company using Salesforce.com's Chatter, I am more convinced than ever that e-mail may be going the route of voice mail: down, though maybe never completely out, at least in its current incarnation. Chatter, which Roche described as "a combination between Twitter, Facebook and Google Wave, focused on the enterprise," has reduced e-mail volumes at FinancialForce, especially the long and fragmented message chains in which it's sometimes difficult to discern who started a conversation, who is involved in it and what actions need to be taken.
Chatter gives communications a transparency simply not possible with e-mail, Roche told me:
Although there's more information, it improves my ability to see things easily and respond to them. From my perspective, you can be more proactive in dealing with problems because you see them so much earlier on. I'd much rather be involved early than late.
FinancialForce incorporated Chatter into its flagship accounting application and created an application called Chatterbox that allows customers to share information across other applications built on Salesforce's Force.com development platform.
So I was somewhat surprised to see, in a study of 538 C-level executives conducted by Kelton Research on behalf of the IT services firm Avanade, that many executives worried their employees would waste more time using collaboration tools than they'd gain in increased productivity. Apparently one in four respondents say they "dread" collaboration because of the amount of time and energy it wastes.
Really? I can't help but wonder if this perception is based on the collaboration tools currently used most: e-mail (named by 90 percent of survey respondents); phone calls (89 percent); shared drives (74 percent); corporate portals, intranets and other team sites (62 percent); and conference calls (57 percent). Of course, this may be precisely the conclusion Avanade wants me to reach, since the company, which is partially owned by Accenture, specializes in offering Microsoft-focused consulting services. SharePoint, anyone?
I've personally wasted a lot of time on most of these tools. Phone calls sometimes require several exchanges of messages before a conversation occurs and, when it does, many minutes are eaten up with superfluous small talk. With e-mail, I spend lots of time deleting unwanted mail, sometimes reading a message first before I determine it's useless. Because of my not-so-organized organizational system, I also spend a fair amount of time trying to locate information. Our company's shared drive is a black hole of information. I often end up sending an instant message or two in trying to find what I need (thus wasting coworkers' time, too).
Despite this "dread," 75 percent of respondents plan to increase the use of communications and collaboration technologies in the coming year. It's a fairly small sample, but does this survey show a tipping point in attitude among executives? Maybe.
I don't doubt that plenty of that spending will be devoted to collaboration platforms like Microsoft's SharePoint. But I think collaboration tools that can be embedded directly into applications, like Chatter, will attract a fair amount of interest as well. Microsoft has made an effort to include more real-time aspects in the forthcoming SharePoint 2010, but it still seems to me like more of an organizational tool than a collaborative one.
It's still too early to tell if any of the emerging collaboration technologies will live up to their promise of streamlining business communications. Every tool in the pipeline comes with a list of "gotchas" -- some of which might not be evident until tools are already in use.