The death of email?

Simon Ratcliffe of Business Systems Group looks at the benefits of converged messaging.

Email is undeniably the de facto standard for business communication but it is far from perfect. It can be a nightmare of paradoxes: from an organisational perspective, most users regard their mailboxes as personal and yet use them to store thousands of corporate documents.

Then there are the thousands of conversational emails that get stored, backed up and archived, taking up IT resources. Businesses are now beginning to recognise the threats to productivity and security these paradoxes present and investigate the strategies that can do something about them.

For example, instant messenger (IM) solutions could offer a viable solution to the conversational email issue. Instant messaging has been widely used in the home market for a number of years and has now started to penetrate into the business world.

However, the reaction from business has polarised between those who have embraced the technology and those that invest time, resource and effort trying to block the systems.

Much of the instant messenger technology in use has not been developed with corporate use in mind, which brings a number of issues. Primarily, the traffic is not encrypted, is unrecorded and there is little or no control of the corporate image in people's user names.

Structured internal IM solutions are able to encrypt traffic, record conversations and ensure that all user names conform to specified standards. It is also possible to extend IM solutions to integrate telephony systems so that users can mix audio and on screen communications for real time collaboration.

Extending IM into the telephony environment creates a very powerful communication tool. Staff can check a colleague's status through the IM window and determine whether it is appropriate to phone them, IM them or send an email.

Ad hoc meetings can be held online using voice and text, irrespective of geography and, because there is online meeting capability in most IM solutions, staff can show presentations and share documentation easily and effectively.

The other half of the email problem is the use of mail for collaborative working and information sharing. Documents are produced and mailed to multiple people for review. Consequently the many, often interacting responses make it difficult to identify the master version of the document.

Portal technology is designed to allow logical groups of users to access a single point and see all relevant documentation and comment/amend/annotate in a structured and organised way. The final document can then be published and access to the document carefully managed, enabling users to search for documents by keywords within the document.

Perhaps most importantly the document then resides in a corporately owned part of the IT system and not within a single mailbox where it is subject to the whim of the user in terms of retention, deletion and distribution.

Larger organisations have invested huge amounts of money in developing sophisticated messaging and collaboration environments and have been reaping the rewards for several years now.

The issue for smaller organisations is that the cost of the initial investment to implement these solutions is high, even though the benefits of effective communications and a more flexible workforce are huge.

Many smaller businesses simply do not have the skills in place to design, deploy and operate a messaging environment that effectively converges email, instant messaging, telephony and voicemail, portals and interactive meetings into one intuitive system.

The logical solution, given that all of these elements are essentially commodity items, is to outsource this to a partner that has the multi-faceted skill set already in place.

This article first appeared in July 2006 ITNOWextra.