The majority of North American business-people (80%) believe that e-mail is more valuable for business communication than the telephone, and 74% think that being without e-mail is more of a hardship than being without a telephone, according to a communication preferences survey by META Group.
These findings are the result of META Group's recent survey designed to identify the generally preferred method of business communication. The top three reasons cited by respondents who preferred e-mail to the telephone were:
- E-mail allows communication with multiple people.
- E-mail enables more rapid communication.
- E-mail generates a written record of every interaction.
"This reveals a major tipping point in the evolution of communications," said META Group's senior vice president, Matt Cain. "While we had suspected that e-mail was becoming more popular than the 'phone, we were surprised by the magnitude of the ratio of those choosing e-mail instead of the 'phone."
According to Cain, e-mail best suits a changing business climate which is characterised by geographically distributed work-groups, an increasing degree of business mobility, the need for rapid dissemination of information, and a need for reusable business records.
For most companies, these findings highlight the need to bring telephone-like reliability and stability to the e-mail environment. However, e-mail presents many challenges not faced by telephone communication systems.
"Users are struggling to keep up with rising tide of message volume, with some users receiving over 200 messages per day and spending several hours daily managing their inbox. Clearly, something has to give," explained Cain. "Vendors are going to have to develop tools to help streamline inbox management, and users need to become more adept at handling large amounts of messages."
E-mail systems are also faced with spam (unsolicited mail), the circulation of undesirable content, viruses, system overloads, and denial of service attacks. META Group believes the creation of safe, secure, and stable mail systems is imperative for the future, and will demand significant increases in both labour and financial resources.
Cain also suggested that the survey respondents' preference for retaining written records of their communications also creates challenges for organisations. These stored messages often break corporate legal guidance, which often advises the rapid destruction of messages.
The survey's findings highlight a tension between management (which is usually concerned about stored messages) and end users (for whom stored messages are a virtue). According to META Group, most organisations will need to formalise and implement comprehensive records management programmes to address this conflict.
The survey also indirectly pointed out some of the shortcomings of e-mail. The top three reasons why some respondents choose the telephone rather than e-mail were:
- The telephone is more personal.
- The telephone creates a better context for communication.
- The telephone helps clarify the tone of messages.
Despite the widening development of 'emoticons' (short character sequences which indicate the sender's mood and tone) in e-mail and text messages, these findings suggest that e-mail is sometimes seen as more impersonal and prone to misunderstanding because verbal cues and context are missing.
The survey highlights the rapidly changing nature of business communications, showing that the number of faxed pages has dropped by 50% during the past five years.
Additionally, voice over internet protocol (VoIP) - a technology used for transmitting telephone calls over shared IP networks such as the internet - is now also viewed as a credible alternative to traditional telephone infrastructures in some situations.
Instant messaging (through which users can see each other's computers online, and hold real-time 'chat' sessions) is increasing rapidly, with more than 90% of Global 2000 knowledge workers being expected to use such a service by 2007.
Finally, according to META, more than half of all American adults in the 35 largest US markets now have a cell 'phone, demonstrating a great desire for mobile communication among the public and business communities.