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Email collaboration evolves in the modern enterprise

Messaging apps are great for team collaboration, but bridging the gap between internal and external communication remains a hurdle. That's why vendors are developing tools to improve email collaboration.

Enterprises are increasingly looking for collaboration tools centered on teams, rather than individuals, with interfaces organized by task, rather than chronology. While collaboration apps like Cisco Spark and Slack are helpful, other vendors are developing tools to make old-fashioned email better meet enterprise needs.

San Francisco-based Front is among the startups looking to bridge the gap between external email and internal collaboration. The company's shared inbox interface allows teams to message amongst themselves about the email messages in their inbox without turning to the clumsy functions of Reply All, Forward and CC.

Front's platform is particularly helpful for customer-facing sales and contact center teams, but to a certain extent, the company sees itself as reinventing the email experience for all enterprise users, making it "lightweight and easy," said Keiko Tokuda, Front's head of marketing.

Redkix is another company seeking to redefine how companies use email in the workplace. Its platform offers a team messaging experience similar to Slack, but one that also automatically converts chats to email when communicating with external recipients.

"[Redkix has] done a great job of blending the world of email and social networking," said Alan Lepofsky, a principal analyst with Constellation Research Inc., based in Cupertino, Calif.. "To bridge those worlds is a very important step, and it's a big challenge. [It's] the problem collaboration tools have always faced."

Front announced last month it had raised $66 million in a Series B round executed by the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, based in Menlo Park, Calif. The company's fundraising shows Silicon Valley investors recognize that email remains a vital tool for enterprises, Lepofsky said.

Despite competition from team messaging vendors, email remains ubiquitous in the business world. In Adobe's 2017 Consumer Email Survey Report, 80% of respondents said they regularly used email to communicate with colleagues, while just 37% said they often used instant messaging.

Email collaboration interfaces designed for teams

Integration with messaging clients, contact lists, file storage apps and calendars could help make email a stronger competitor to collaboration upstarts, said Maribel Lopez, founder of Lopez Research LLC in Healdsburg, Calif.

Front, for example, integrates with Twitter, Facebook, Twilio, Salesforce and other applications to minimize the extent to which enterprise users need to toggle between platforms. Users can also manage a team and individual email account in one interface.

"I would say that, right now, we're probably in the space of email for teams," Front's Tokuda said. "But I think down the road, it's very much about having a platform where teams are able to not only collaborate with each other, but really get most of their work done within this platform."

Lopez predicted many of the email collaboration services offered by startups today would eventually be copied or acquired by more prominent vendors, like Microsoft and Google; others will fail to prove useful enough to convince enterprises they are worth the cost.

Nevertheless, startups keep pushing the envelope with email. Platforms like Sortd and Drag help users organize email inboxes based on tasks, rather than chronology. Others, like Astro and Knowmail, have developed artificial intelligence tools that scan inboxes to set reminders automatically and offer workflow tips.

"We have been looking at email based on the same columns for two decades now: name, date, time sender, subject, size, maybe a priority flag," Lepofsky said. "These new tools are starting to say we will data-mine the content inside messages, and we will decide how to show the prioritization to you."

Those types of features are sure to raise the competitive pressure on messaging platforms. Enterprises are oversaturated with communication options, and adding one more tool as email clients get more collaborative might be a tough sell, especially because most messaging apps do not reach people outside of an organization.

"As much as we all love to say we hate it, [email] works," Lepofsky said.

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