Email sucks, right? It undermines workplace communication and knowledge sharing with its 1-to-1, letter-writing paradigm. Its lame attempt to be open and communal via carbon copies (yes, that’s “cc”) leads only to splintered conversations and further confusion. And then there are attachments, which are modeled on the stuff that used to accompany your letter. 

(“Dear Sirs: Enclosed please find the 1500 page unsolicited manuscript of my first novel, entitled  ‘Email: Threat or Menace? – A Comedy.’ I have also enclosed a testimonial from my 8th-grade creative writing teacher, Mrs. Cartwright, and a home movie of my visit to Walden Pond. I trust you have a Super-8 movie projector handy?”)

 Attachments mock security policies and the effort to establish a single version of the truth, and they surrender control over the structure and flow of a multiple-part presentation to the random whims of the order in which the receiver opens (or, doesn’t open) the multiple attachments.

Enterprise 2.0 enthusiasts (count me in) have argued for several years that Email’s manifest deficiencies could and would be overcome with open, social, and dynamic 2.0-based communication and collaboration tools. However, there’s also long been the recognition that Email – or rather, Email users – would not go down without a fight.

I recently revisited a 2006 blog post from enterprise 2.0 guru Andrew McAfee that neatly laid out why objectively superior workplace technologies struggle to displace Email. In short, people are typically so change-averse that they overvalue what they have by 3X and undervalue proposed substitutes by 3X – hence, as McAfee has it, “The 9X Email Problem.” A successful replacement for Email would have to be not just better, not just 5X better, but 10X better than Email in order to overcome this resistance.

McAfee said that enterprise 2.0 technologists could fight the 9X problem in two ways: “Try to increase the perceived benefits of their technologies (in other words, what the user feels she’s getting), or lower their perceived costs and drawbacks (what the user feels she’ll be giving up).” 

Recent releases and announcements from vendors suggest they’re taking a third approach: Avoid the 9X problem by retaining Email as the addictive workplace app, but avoid the deficiencies of Email by making it smarter, social, dynamic, and an interactive part of business processes instead of just a means of exchanging messages about processes. Just about everywhere you look today, vendors like Google, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, and Novell are announcing product releases, extensions, betas, or visions that take your tired old Email interface and pump it up with various combinations of chat, presence, voice and video, threads, profiles, and in-place application functionality.

So it looks like the long sought replacement for Email is . . . better Email.

My colleague Ted Schadler will explore in detail why and how Email will likely remain at the core of the future workplace at Forrester’s IT Forum in Las Vegas this week (“Reinventing Email For The 21st Century”).  On a related note, I’ll lead a session on “Turning Your Intranet Into An Efficient Information Workplace.” Please come by to discuss.

But in the meantime, or if you can’t make it to Vegas, what do you think about the role of Email in the emerging information workplace?