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Will Millennials sound the death knell for email?

Millennials communicate in new ways; they prefer instant forms of messaging like WhatsApp and Facebook chat, rather than the formal style of email.

But should businesses incorporate these social behaviours and technological preferences into the modern workplace to engage with this group more effectively? Can these new behaviours and technologies replace email? And should they?

When it comes to introducing new technology and ways of working, businesses need to accept that what works in a social environment may not work in a professional one. For example, Millennials may want to use applications that reflect the free flowing format of instant messaging, but businesses need to consider which tools will best serve their wider business goals.

In some cases, this may well be email, which offers established compliance, auditability and control benefits. For more free flowing communications, social tools like Yammer and Slack may be more effective. The first step is to identify what the business is trying to achieve, and then to implement a solution that best meets these needs.

What do businesses want?

Even in companies with fairly flat organisational structures, there is still some form of hierarchy that has senior managers monitoring and driving the performance of staff. Compared to email, the open nature of social messaging platforms often brings an element of chaos, as message threads become long unwieldy streams of unverified “chit chat”, making compliance and measurement very difficult.

There are many examples of SMEs and small teams of up to 50 people using instant messaging and social networks to share information successfully, but this is because the small number of users makes this form of communication manageable. Larger businesses, however, are still communicating in the same way they have since the 1990s, with email.

As a result, two key aspects of day-to-day working remain disconnected from each other: the electronic communication between staff and the work output itself. For example, employees may have an email exchange before deciding upon a course of action, but then switch from email to a file-based system to edit a Word, PowerPoint or Excel document, before again returning to email in order to send the completed document for review. This is clearly a tedious process.

In their social lives, Millennials are used to a ‘followable’ environment with seamless, real-time information sharing – so why would they want to email their colleagues with a link to a file every time they make a change? If this activity could be carried out directly in a collaborative environment, teams could synchronously work together, removing the version control issues and delays that leave Millennials feeling frustrated.

Communication is a means to an end

Business communication should also be seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself. There is an increasing desire amongst business users to achieve closer integration between day-to-day communication and the processes that are needed to get the work done. Getting the work done is the key point – not just talking, but actually producing something.

There is a growing market of applications available for this purpose, from message aggregators like Slack to social document authoring tools like Quip or GoogleDocs. Millennials are increasingly trying to patchwork together a better, more social way of working that avoids a sole reliance on email.

At the moment, this patchwork quilt is still the preserve of the individual and the SME work environment. Even Slack’s high profile growth and media awareness has not established it as a pervasive way of communicating in the enterprise. The same was true of Yammer five years ago, despite being the self proclaimed “Enterprise Social Network”.

This brings into question whether the work itself, currently authored off-line, is the reason for email and attachments persisting. If that is the case, then introducing new ways of communicating will never take hold. A new way of working, addressing the root cause, is the way forward.

So where are we now?

Quip is a simple social authoring tool, and its multi-platform, lightweight user interface is certainly easy and quick to adopt. But could an entire enterprise use it instead of Microsoft Office? No. And that is not its intention.

GoogleDocs has been adopted by some enterprises, and with its Office style tool set, it offers enough familiarity for workers to perhaps abandon Office. However, even with that switch, users still end up using Gmail to communicate around the files they have authored, and their working behaviour ends up being much the same as before.

Right now, in a climate of venture-backed start-ups, all clamouring to be the next “unicorn”, software culture is about speed to market and speed of growth. It is not about deep thinking, complex design and substantial build out, yet that is what it takes to replace the thirty-year-old complex design and substantial build out that is Microsoft Office.

Until that rigour and engineering investment is placed into enterprise software development, Millennials will not be able to replace the email that intrinsically links personal desktop productivity together in the enterprise, at least not entirely.

Tristan Rogers, CEO, Concrete

Image source: Shutterstock/Peshkova