Tag: email

The future of enterprise collaboration

I have just finished talking to a group of university students who were invited to IBM Hursley today. I had about 15 minutes to discuss Enterprise Collaboration, and I used the time to take a quick tour through IBM’s size, diversity and organisation, and talked about how the way I operate has changed since I got engaged in blogging internally four years ago, and how I “broke through” the firewall.

Towards the beginning of the talk, I asked three questions to get some group discussion going, and asked the students to shout out some answers. Here’s a summary of the responses.

1. What kinds of tools do you think enterprises use to communicate internally today?
“Skype”, “online meetings”, “MSN” (email and phone came right at the end of the list)

2. What kinds of tools would you like to use in a work environment?
“Facebook”, “Skype”

3. Is it a good idea, or appropriate, to communicate and share through firewalls?
“It’s important, for networking”, “companies could have their own version of Facebook internally”

I didn’t seed any of these responses! Very interesting… I think I’d expected the answers to question 1 to be email, wiki, blog etc., but those are all old school (and possibly, irrelevant) as far as this group was concerned. I guess the outcome of this entirely unscientific survey will be old news to some people, but I found it fascinating.

Update 17th June:
Thanks for all the interest in this post! I should just reiterate that this is not new news – as @andysc said to me after the talk yesterday, the idea that “email is how I communicate with my parents” is as commonplace as the idea that some of us may have had that “snail mail is how we communicated with our grandparents”. The point here is about the expectation of speed of spread of technology within corporations. I found it a very interesting perspective, although I guess I’d half-expected some of the answers. I just hadn’t expected the “old tech” to be buried so far down in the consciousness. But then, when I left university, web browsers were just emerging and I had a desktop email client at home, but yet I suddenly found myself at work using a green-screen terminal emulator to access what was, to my mind at the time, a hideously hard-to-use mail system called MEMO which required the use of line-editing commands.

One other point, given my own interest in these two technology spaces – Andy C asks below about microblogging, and I certainly mentioned our use of these tools internally and externally, but it didn’t seem to be on the students’ radar; secondly, I spoke about attending meetings in virtual worlds and the relative effectiveness compared to a teleconference, but again that didn’t come up as an idea in the responses to the questions at the start. So it seems (again, based on a highly unscientific study of a limited pool of London MSc Management students) that the technologies that are “expected” in the enterprise are those that have reached widespread consumer adoption outside it.

The end of email?

I caught a comment from SXSW yesterday, where my friend Suzanne Minassian sent a tweet from a panel she was at:

are we going to lose email to social networking – discussing in panel #sxsw (minassian)

*insert backward-playing tape noise sound effect here*

So when I left university in…. oh… 90-something 🙂 I ended up joining the UK Post Office IT Services (weirdly, this is my second PO-related post today, albeit more tenuously-linked than the first). As part of the interview process I was asked to give a presentation about ways that the organisation could adapt to the electronic age and the challenges of the Internet. The content of the presentation has long been filed away somewhere dusty, disposed of or lost, but I do remember that my main points were:

  • Physical mail won’t ever go away. People like to receive physical objects, letters, and parcels. Humans are fundamentally social and tactile.
  • As e-commerce grows, parcel mail will grow.
  • There were other ways that the PO could get value from the Internet – I didn’t suggest the ISP route but did talk about, for example, local printing of electronically-transmitted letters as a kind of bridge between the physical and electronic worlds (well, it seemed like an idea as a student at the time, what can I say?!).

I like to think that my first two predictions were pretty accurate – since the mid-1990s the volumes of mail have indeed grown. In my own case I suppose I get a lot less post in the way of bills and statements since much of that is done online; and I write and send fewer personal letters, although birthday cards and the like remain physical objects of importance. I do a lot of online shopping and physical shipping of goods, and ebay has of course increased that trend (and helped the rise of the Mailboxes, Etc chain, as far as I can tell). So in a very real sense, snail mail has not been lost to email. In one way it’s been multiplied by it, and looking at it another way, you could say it has become more focussed by the rise of the Internet and online business.

*fast-forwarding tape sound effect*

And now, back in the present day…

I think the same thing is true of social networks and their effect on email. Much as I admire and respect my good friend Luis Suarez‘s assault on the tyranny of email, I think what he has found is that there’s a base level of mail which he continues to get, as email is often still the most appropriate channel for certain, private or behind-the-firewall communications, for example. In fact, I’m willing to bet that he also gets a bunch of messages that have been generated by the social networks he’s part of, too – I get emails when I receive direct messages, or someone new follows me, or whatever, although it’s possible to opt-out or filter them out.

The core of the email I receive though, is also focussed or narrowed down by the networks I participate in. It’s often far quicker to drop a short line to a friend over IM or direct message then it is to send an email, and I can broadcast status and information to groups more effectively via a Facebook profile or whatever than I could by mass-mailing them all.

I think the effect we’re seeing is a levelling out and an adjustment whereby the relevant tools and means of communication – phone, text, mail, email, IM, and social network messages – all come together and start to be used in the most effective ways, where one size does not fit all.

Rationalising email: Gmail, IMAP and Mail.app

The current setup

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of email addresses… and a proportionately large amount of spam to go with them.

For the past five or so years, my mail processing system has looked like this:

  1. Linux server running fetchmail which fetches from a total of… um… 8 (!)POP3 accounts.
  2. All mail run through SpamAssassin which catches probably 90% of the junk, and scripts run every month that clear down and learn from the spam.
  3. SquirrelMail on the same server to provide web access.
  4. Dovecot IMAP on the same server to let me manage the aggregated mail from Thunderbird on various laptops at home.

This has worked well, but it has also meant that I’ve had to maintain a Linux server at home, and I’ve not opened up IMAP access to it over the Internet. So, with Google’s announcement of IMAP support in Gmail, I thought I’d give it another go.

How am I using Gmail now?

It took about a week for Gmail IMAP to appear on my account, as those who followed my increasinglyfrustrated Twitterings will confirm.

It’s a progressive process, but I’ve decided to try to use Gmail’s ability to suck mail from my other accounts. The problem is that I have 7 of them (the eighth is Gmail itself), and Gmail will only let me pull down mail from 5. That actually turns out to be OK, since a couple of them were essentially unused or spam-only accounts, so I’m cutting down on those too.

Using Gmail as the front-end to all of my mail is good for a couple of reasons, and bad for another:

Good – I will eventually be able to decommission the Linux server.

Good – Gmail has good spam filtering, labels and all that good stuff around search, and is mostly accessible.

Bad – it isn’t accessible from everywhere, and my last client actually blocked access to Gmail explicitly, whilst I could still get to my home server very easily. I think this is likely to be the greatest annoyance.

I was pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to configure Gmail to pull my other POP3 accounts… generally I only had to name the provider and my account details, not enter all of the server information manually. Good stuff.

Changing mail clients

I was listening to the MacFormat weekly podcast the other day and discovered that the new version of Apple’s Mail.app has some very interesting features. Amongst them are some very cool data scraping capabilities (called Data Detectors) that allow todos, addresses and iCal entries to be intelligently created from analysis of the message body. Here’s an example, featuring Roo’s IET lecture next week:-)

My default mail client up until now on the MacBook Pro has been Thunderbird, but that has been largely a matter of familiarity… I decided that it was time to give the Apple alternative a try.

So far, it has been an intriguing experience. I can’t say I’ve found Mail to be the most intuitive application. For a start, configuration for Gmail IMAP was not very easy (here is some useful additional information that wasn’t on the Gmail FAQ). Not only that, but in Thunderbird and Gmail, I’m used to hitting a key for the next unread email, but Mail inexplicably doesn’t allow this. Two solutions:

  1. An Applescript that causes Mail.app to jump to the next unread. I used Quicksilver to bind this to Option-` and it now pops up Mail and switches to the relevant Space as well as moving to the right message.
  2. Probably an even simpler option, that Andrew Webb suggested via Twitter: a Smart Folder which only shows the Unread messages.


Now that I’m getting used to it, I’m quite liking Mail… particularly the ability to jump straight into Quick Look to view images and documents.

Trials and tribulations will be reported as the experiment continues.

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