Electronic Mail Is Not Yet Perfect

By Madlin, Nancy | Management Review, July 1989 | Go to article overview

Electronic Mail Is Not Yet Perfect


Madlin, Nancy, Management Review


Electronic Mail Is Not Yet Perfect

For many in the corporate world, using electronic mail has become as ordinary as using the telephone--but much more convenient. For those who are hooked up to their key coworkers, e-mail is the ideal way to transmit information without engaging in an ongoing game of telephone tag. It's an efficient way to route reports, memos, and other written materials for revision without having to retype the document. And it makes disseminating information to a number of people dispersed over a large geographic area quick and efficient without the hassle of having to copy or print anything on paper.

In short, e-mail is a powerful tool for improving productivity. However, its full potential has not yet been realized. Technical problems still stand in the way, but even more significant, a number of management problems have not been recognized or addressed in most e-mail settings.

In the large corporation, e-mail is practically ubiquitous. "It would be difficult to find a Fortune 1000 company that doesn't have it," says Michael Cavanagh, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Electronic Mail Association, a group of users and vendors founded in 1983. Cavanagh estimates there are between 6 million and 8 million e-mail users in the U.S., with the greatest concentrations in the largest companies. "There are probably 20,000 to 30,000 users at Procter & Gamble alone," he notes. Cavanagh predicts that the number of users nationwide will grow by 20 to 25 percent each year.

STILL NOT ENOUGH

Despite these figures, e-mail is not as efficient as it could be because not enough people in most corporations have access to it. According to David Taylor, director of inter-enterprise systems at the Gartner Group, a research firm in Stamford, Connecticut, e-mail users constitute only about 1 percent of large companies' employees. Taylor adds, however, that that number may grow as high as 20 percent over the next three years.

"Some large companies have made a major corporate commitment to e-mail," says Taylor. An IBM may have tens of thousands of users, all of whom can communicate with each other. What's more common, however, is having many different e-mail systems that arose independently in different groups, each one having several hundred to several thousand users." Typically, the groups will be using a variety of software and, says Taylor, "the problem is getting these people to talk to each other."

The main hurdle is not a technical one; products do exist that can link up a variety of e-mail systems. But it takes a coordinated management effort to plan and implement such a linkup. And, had management coordination been a high priority in the first place, these diverse systems might not have arisen.

Coordination is also key to tackling e-mail's other common corporate problem: access. For people to use e-mail effectively, they have to be able to reach everybody in the company they do business with. "In most companies, you can't," Taylor says, "and that's the reason that e-mail usage has never really skyrocketed like people predicted it would." Suppose, for example, that someone in public relations has to reach all the division heads, dispersed throughout different locations. If any of them don't have e-mail, the public relations person will have to write a paper memo to those who aren't on the system--and since they have to write a paper memo anyway, they'll probably end up sending that to everyone instead of using e-mail at all.

EXTERNAL E-MAIL

The other type of e-mail used by businesses is the external system--a linkup with an "electronic mailbox" outside the company that allows communication with others, such as suppliers or contractors. According to Electronic Mail & Microsystems newsletter of New Canaan, Connecticut, the number of these mailboxes has grown to more than 1.5 million, from 450,000 five years ago. …

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