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Email in the enterprise: entering its twilight at 40?

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Death of EmailEarlier this year, European IT services giant Atos Origin declared its intentions to completely phase email out of their internal operations within the next three years. This perhaps the most compelling case to date that suggests the declining necessity of email in the enterprise. While it’s certainly premature to declare email — which turned 40 years old in 2011 — “dead” as a technology, it’s fair to acknowledge that a new generation of communication tools is gaining traction as a more effective means of communication for the enterprise.

Email is without a doubt the most tried and true technology for both enterprise and personal communication, but it’s not without its shortcomings. Specifically, Atos CEO Thierry Breton cited email’s spam-like nature as one of the biggest contributors to “information  pollution” that’s bogging down management. His goal is for Atos — which has nearly 50,000 employees worldwide — to be a “zero-email company” within the next three years. In place of email, Breton says that Atos will increasingly encourage its employees to collaborate on instant messaging and social networking platforms.

This marks the first time an organization of this size has made such a definitive statement on email, but it almost certainly won’t be the last. In truth, the gradual shift from email to messaging and social networking platforms began some years ago, but it’s only recently that this phenomenon has penetrated the enterprise from the consumer side.

Over the past several years, the rise of social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter have taken a lot of the conversations that once occurred on email to other channels on the consumer side. While email is still a central repository for tracking updates from various networking sites, it has become decidedly less useful for interacting with friends and colleagues on a daily basis compared to mediums like instant messaging and streaming content feeds.

As is often the case, the consumer side embraced these platforms well in advance of the enterprise. Instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter have all been in use for years for personal computing purposes. As the “internet generation” has come of age, entrepreneurs have increasingly put effort behind enterprise-friendly communication and automation tools. The rapid rise of platforms like Yammer and Salesforce’s Chatter – which are exclusively geared towards the enterprise — suggest the larger rise of the “social enterprise.”

The social enterprise refers to a premium on enhanced collaboration and real-time communication in the name of greater organizational efficiency. As such, there’s no single be-all, end-all tool that will ultimately replace email. Rather, a suite of complementary tools are gradually emerging as more effective mediums for enterprise collaboration.

Some other noteworthy technologies that are emerging in place of email include:

  • Process automation tools: Automating processes via business process management (BPM) tools enables automated responses and actions via automated emails, instant messages, etc. that prompted actionable messages (I.e., a “yes/no” button). This can eliminate the tedious back-and-forth associated with corporate functions like employee on-boarding/off-boarding, invoicing and employee requests. BPM has seen a spike in interest in recent years, with mega-vendors like Oracle and IBM (s IBM) putting more effort into their BPM offerings, and smaller vendors like BonitaSoft (my company), Intalio and BizAgi also offering BPM suites.
  • Enterprise portals: While enterprise portals have existed for some time, they’ve recently begun integrating more social features to increase collaboration between employees — often via real-time, streaming feeds with more accessible user interfaces. More and more, these portals are including plug-ins for other features like process automation and instant messaging to create a wider social intranet in which employees can collaborate. eXo and Liferay are two examples of enterprise portal vendors that have successfully incorporated a social aspect into their respective offerings.
  • Semantic web technologies: This is a still-evolving area that, while it has yet to make a significant mark in the enterprise, is poised to emerge as a critical technology in the near future. As organizations continue to struggle to manage the massive volumes of unstructured data generated by internal communication, it’s important to have tools capable of properly sorting and analyzing the information it generates. Examples of this can be seen today from the likes of Microsoft (s MSFT) (Powerset/Bing), Apple (s AAPL) (Siri/Apple 4S) and Google (s GOOG) (FreeBase), among others.

This is not to say that email is not still a necessary component of enterprise communication; it’s still a vital cog for many core organizational processes. However, with the rise of tools such as those mentioned above, it’s undoubtedly seeing a decline in overall  usage — particularly in terms of internal collaboration. Atos’ decision to phase out email is perhaps the most ringing endorsement yet for the notion that email is being gradually phased out of the enterprise, and it will be interesting to see how many other large scale organizations will follow in its footsteps over the next several years as collaborative technologies continue to evolve.

Miguel Valdés Faura is the CEO and co-founder of BonitaSoft, a France-based company that produces business process management (BPM) software and provides commercial services and support for the open source Bonita project, of which he is also co-founder. Follow Miguel on Twitter @MiguelValdes.

For more information about the future of collaboration tools, check out GigaOM’s Net:Work event on Dec. 8, 2011.

Image courtesy of Flickr user cambodia4kidsorg.

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