IBM The Latest To Try To Fix Email

IBM wants to take on email and today released its new email product called IBM Verse. It believes like so many before it, that the problem with email is the presentation, not the medium itself, but the real issue is that it’s been abused, used as a communications and collaboration tool it’s just not well suited for.

IBM’s answer is to throw some design sense at the problem, and mix it with analytics and intelligence and when you’re done, you have a smarter and more usable email tool, and it seems to work to some extent, but it doesn’t really address the fundamental underlying issues with email, no matter how pretty or well designed it is.

When you look at its tool kit though, it’s a lot like Cisco’s Project Squared tool I wrote about yesterday in that you can do a number of communications and collaboration tasks all within in a single, well-designed interface. The tool combines email, meetings, calendars, file sharing, instant messaging, social updates, video chats and more.

In that sense it’s like a lot of email and collaboration platforms including Outlook, but it wants to be much more than that and use its analytics capabilities to help you surface the people and email that matter most and see connections among the people who are part of any communications string.

The idea with this approach is to use intelligence to surface the content that matters most to you in your Inbox. The real proof of this application will be in the using. It’s hard to know how well this will work until you try it. IBM plans to even bring Watson into the equation in a future release (it doesn’t say quite when) where you can use Watson to search across the collaboration platform to find the best answers to any particular query.

IBM Versa Email product interface

The real question is if email is the best way to organize our work lives. Justin Rosenstein, a co-founder at Asana (along with Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz) thinks email is simply an electronic version of paper mail and no matter how you organize it, it’s not the right way to deal with project coordination.

“Email is just an upgrade to the post office. It was never intended as a human coordination tool. While it’s really good for sending letters, it’s not good for coordinating a bunch of people,” Rosenstein told me in a recent conversation. In fact, his company’s tagline is ‘teamwork without email.’

Rosenstein says we’re going about this all wrong. He thinks we should be centering on the graph of work knowledge. He told me that instead of focusing on email, we should be focusing on our work, not a virtual pile of correspondence. Whereas the social graph describes our personal lives, Asana’s work graph puts work at center (tasks, projects, ideas, customers, any unit of work –are nodes). In the work graph, he explained, each of the nodes is annotated with file attachments, conversations, due dates and so forth, and relationships can be mapped between units of work to see how these different elements relate to one another.

Asana Work Graph

It’s worth noting that Rosenstein and Moskovitz’s former employer Facebook, is also working on a similar approach to the problem called ‘Facebook at Work’.

But there are other ways to do this too. Box and Dropbox want to organize work around files. Evernote wants to organize your work around notes.

What all of these approaches have in common is that they are looking at ways to organize our work lives in a way that takes email out of the center. None of these companies have professed to eliminate email, but they want to put it back in its rightful place. The phone hasn’t disappeared as a business communication tool, but it is not the center of our work communication to a large extent any longer. Email is good for longer correspondence that doesn’t fit well in a messaging environment, but it shouldn’t be used as a de facto project coordination and file sharing tool and that’s what it has become.

Which brings us back to IBM, which wants to keep email where it is, smack-dab in the center of our work lives (which many workers are perfectly content to do). Can IBM make a silk purse out of sow’s ear?

Verse is certainly a big step forward in terms of design, but if you have to rethink the way you do email and retrain people to use email differently, maybe that would be a good point to rethink the role of email in your organization.

It doesn’t mean email is going away. It shouldn’t, but it does mean that we have to reconsider how we use and abuse email and if there might be a better way to work, however you choose to do that.