Email is so Immature

by Neale Martin published September 26, 2006 in Telephony Telephony

“How many e-mails do you get a day?” It's a set-up question I frequently ask when giving technology speeches. Invariably, I get the response I'm looking for when someone shouts out, “Too many!” This, I point out, is an intuitive observation that e-mail is likely to make us less productive. Another question that always delivers is, “How many of you use Outlook as a document management tool?” I can imagine many of you sheepishly nodding your heads as you read this. It's just so darned convenient to track projects by dumping all related e-mails into an Outlook folder. But what is the cost to back up all of those e-mails, especially all those attachments? And those of us who work on laptops or for small businesses probably haven't backed up our computers in a long time.

And what's the policy on returning an e-mail? I'm old enough to remember early jobs where I was told to return all calls within 24 hours. What's the policy for returning e-mails at your company? Is there a policy? For that matter, is there a policy on when you should e-mail, call or IM someone either in your organization or out?

This is not a knock on e-mail, one of the most important communication tools of the last 40 years. It is a commentary on the lack of process maturity that we tolerate for the communications technologies that drive our organizations. More recent communications technologies like IM, text messaging and wireless data have even less mature processes governing their use. We have been paying the price for this laxity for years (viruses, spam, discovery in lawsuits, etc.), but each new development sees us equally unprepared.

Out of chaos emerges opportunity.

Traditional telecom carriers did not invent any of these technologies, but they empower them all. As telephone services continue to be relentlessly commoditized, one service is constantly neglected: helping customers actually use communications technology to achieve business results. For years, the IT industry has reaped billions in high-margin revenue from consulting services, and it is past time for communications companies to recognize this as an opportunity and a serious threat.

A question such as, “Have you identified the Sarbanes-Oxley implications of IM for your organization?” can reveal startling gaps in your customers' communications processes and procedures. The idea is not simply the consultative sell, of which your sales force is well aware. It is actually selling consulting, which opens the opportunity to burrow deep into your customers' strategic intent and align your products and services with the achievement of their most critical goals. This creates margins and diminishes commoditization.

While the opportunity for such positioning is highly promising, the threat to those who don't is potentially fatal. As the distinction between telecommunications and information technology fades, IT is better positioned as the creator of information value than is telecom. After all, part of the goal of VoIP and converged networks is to get rid of the “unnecessary” phone network. Wireless VoIP likewise threatens to marginalize cellular services while Wi-Fi does the same for 3G. Telecoms won't go away anytime soon, but their margins and markets will continue to erode if they don't reposition.

Unfortunately, telecom providers lack two elements essential to move up the value chain: trained consultants and an aptitude for rapidly adopting new technologies. Today, executives are more likely to ask a teenager about IM, podcasting and blogs than they are to ask their telecom service provider.

However, the second deficit is even more daunting. Telecom service providers are often hostile to new communications technologies, viewing them as a threat to their profits, their networks or both. The limitations wireless providers put on how customers use their data-capable devices is a good indicator of this attitude. They purposely limit the value their customers can derive from their technology and are puzzled by low adoption rates.

Companies are looking for help in understanding how to function in a world where an Internet application written by a teenager can undermine the foundations of their business. They want a partner that will help them navigate the increasing complexity of the communications revolution. If they don't get that from their communications provider, they will take that service from someone who will recommend non-telecom solutions.