According to a Gartner statistic cited at this weeks INBOX conference in San Jose, Calif., 75 percent of all knowledge assets exist in e-mail. E-mail is a corporate asset, goes the logic.
And a corporate liability, too, as Microsoft famously discovered. These days, you almost need an attorney on retainer to open your e-mail.
Remember how our love affair with e-mail began? Those innocent days of “youve got mail!” The strange music of the modem handshaking as it stepped down from 28.8 to 14.4 to the glacial 9600. The hypnotic pattern of the modem lights as they rhythmically pulled down the latest batch of messages.
Imagine awakening a la Rip Van Winkle in an INBOX session titled, “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Taming the Inbox.” E-mail consultant Anthony Lye presents a series of increasingly blunt statements about corporate e-mail, anchored by this: E-mail is the property of companies, not individuals.
On its face, this is a true statement. Courts have consistently upheld the position, and HR makes it clear on Day One of a new job. Your bits is mine, the company says.
This fundamental precept shapes much of our e-mail sociology. Hierarchical e-mail patterns cement office relationships, with the order of addresses and placement in to: and cc: lines following intricate corporate pecking orders. Blind ccs are reserved—when allowed—for political gambits and managing up or laterally, more and more across corporate firewalls.
In the days before the BlackBerry, corporate e-mail was strictly a weekday affair. Now, that boundary is purely psychological—yes, you have the right to ignore your boss after hours, but can you really afford it?
The cudgel most often employed is: Im working at 3 a.m.; why arent you? Interestingly, these value-added e-mails often cross hierarchical lines, with a kind of virtual, conspiratorial wink that bypasses middle management. However, who knows who was blind-ccd.
But this foray across the boundary between professional and private has triggered a counterwave of getting even.
With little recourse as far as switching jobs in a fluttering economy, workers are reclaiming some of the personal time theyve “donated” to the always-on, always-connected workosphere.
Whether its buying movie tickets on Fandango, paying electronic bills or reading RSS feeds, people are slipstreaming personal business into their lunch breaks, commute time and spare cycles of their daily duties.
Of course, IT knows the fingerprints of the more egregious time-wasters: porn sites, sports sites, eBay and social networking communities.
And users know the workarounds, too: VPN tunnels, private e-mail accounts and IM. Its information prohibition at work, and we all know how that turned out.
Ironically, attempts to shut down information exchange have the opposite effect. A Microsoft speaker told the conference that IM traffic is now outpacing e-mail inside the Redmond firewall. And there are fundamental incentives for preserving information transparency.
The practice of mining and enhancing Google page rank reminds me of the old New York Lottery ads: You have to be in it to win it.
Technorati rates The New York Times at the top of the list for incoming links, while The Wall Street Journal is nowhere to be found in the top 50. Both business models are seriously in profit, but the Journal has sacrificed influence in the broader conversation.
Similarly, lack of IM interoperability has diluted the value of each IM platform. A kind of de facto platform has emerged, in which social networks and their directories become the routing infrastructure for point-to-point communications.
The winners will likely emerge from the IM components, when presence, awareness and role-based routing to devices are encapsulated in an API set.
And finally, the elephant in the room: RSS. While INBOX wrestles with the intractable problems of blurred international boundaries, too-complex authentication solutions and too-expensive computational and payment schemes, more and more of us are routing around e-mail for all but the most basic services.
IM for supply-chain communications, social networks for collaboration spaces, and RSS as the glue that ties these data points together.
This real-time services fabric is that deadliest of competitors to e-mail: It shifts attention slowly and surely away from a producer-consumer economy to a publisher-subscriber ecology. Publishers use transparency to establish credibility, then trade that authority for a reliable connection with their customers.
In this new context, the customer—not the company—controls the conversation. Or to paraphrase Anthony Lye, RSS is the property of individuals, not companies. Thats why we fell in love with e-mail in the first place.