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The evolving role of email in business communication

Email has been around for decades, but its role in business communications will change as collaboration apps become more predominant and open.

Will email soon take a back seat to modern IM and collaboration tools? It depends. While email remains the primary and foundational communications technology for the business world, in certain situations, its importance is diminished by the rise of tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack. Let's examine why and how the role of email in business communications will evolve in the near future.

Collaboration platforms shine where email falls short

Email was first invented in the 1970s and exploded once the internet became widely available in the mid-1990s. While email has evolved from a purely text-based communications medium to one that supports written text, images and video, the underlying framework and use of digital messaging have largely remained the same. As a result, several aspects of email continue to bedevil businesses and business users, among them:

  • team and group email threads that are cumbersome and difficult to manage;
  • rampant malware and phishing risks;
  • a lack of true instant messaging or real-time one-on-one or group collaboration; and
  • no true cohesion between email platforms and other collaboration services and tools.

Unsurprisingly, collaboration providers exploited these shortcomings to offer tools that have exploded in popularity as of late. Features of these collaboration platforms include the following:

  • easily organized one-on-one and team and group communication threads;
  • real-time communication using IM, team chat, voice, video, presence and file sharing;
  • seamless integration between collaboration tools; and
  • platforms that were built with a security-first focus.

Ubiquity is email's ace in the hole -- but for how long?

Yet, IM and collaboration tools have a major downside. Unlike email, which enables users both inside and outside the organization to communicate freely, collaboration software traditionally requires all users to use the same proprietary platform to communicate.

For many organizations, IM and collaboration tools have largely been relegated to intracompany communications use. Email remains the preferred platform for external messaging.

Considering there are literally dozens of popular IM and collaboration platforms vying for market share, it's highly unlikely that everyone with whom a business needs to communicate and collaborate uses the same vendor platform. For many organizations, IM and collaboration tools have largely been relegated to intracompany communications use. Email remains the preferred platform for external messaging.

But that may be changing. IM and collaboration platform providers are making it easier for their tools to communicate across vendor platforms. Companies like Microsoft, Slack, Cisco, Google and Zoom are cooperating with each other to build cross-platform compatibility, where users can communicate while using different products. While this type of integration is still in the early stages and will encounter some bumps along the way, it's likely that users of the most popular collaboration tools will soon be able to communicate, regardless of the platform they use.

Will business email disappear anytime soon?

That said, it's doubtful a business of any size will completely eliminate email in favor of modern collaboration tools. But the role of email in business communications will change. Email will likely be viewed as a more formal method of communication -- both internally and externally -- and used to formulate and distribute complex written content sent in a mostly unidirectional manner. For most other tasks, IM and collaboration tools simply do it better.

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