Email versus productivity? Or just Verse.

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At a dinner with colleagues and professionals from a variety of industries, I was struck at how often the conversation turned to email. How much we get versus how much we can absorb. How we sort it. What best practices we learned around managing it. What we should better do with the time we dedicate to it.

Email is on our minds and commands our attention because — like the telephone – it is both ubiquitous and trusted, from the mailroom clerk all the way up to the C-suite. CEOs and other decision makers struggle with email as much as the average employee that reports to them.   Email is woven into the fabric of our daily work. In the insurance industry, for example, email is still a dominant tool that is favored for marketing, with 77% of consumers preferring to receive email rather than communications by any other channel.

The next week, as I was still mulling that dinner conversation, I was watching the “How we got to Now” series on PBS and was struck by the long expanse of time needed for most innovations to take hold. This reminded me that communication is still evolving to improve productivity and humanity is still evolving with these communications. When a communication technology is particularly effective and solves our problem well, the tendency is that innovation around the technology seems to shift into an incremental state. It’s almost as if we put the innovation on slow-mo or pause, because we have the critical capability we needed in the first place, and can only digest so much change at once.

Here’s an example…Perhaps I confess too much when I say that I can remember when email was introduced for the first time into an office in which I worked. I was in sales at the time and it was very close to the same time that I was handed something called a “Bag phone” for the same job. (Two different technologies that soon would marry in future instantiations.)

When the office finally turned on email — sure, in this case it was on a ‘green screen’ and the monitor was part of the keyboard, as the computers themselves were 10 years older than the email just installed on them – we instantly all saw the value. Email offered the promise to immediately shift a concern or work impasse from our desk, to the desk of someone that could better and more quickly provide the appropriate answer to the client concern. The first thing the office noticed is that it allowed us all to save a lot of trips up the stairs to other offices – which was welcomed time savings. But we soon also realized the ancillary benefit that email helped maintain proof of product changes in a history of sent emails, as papers could, and did, get lost. My point is that this innovation quickly showed its merit – even in its lowest tech and earliest instance, at an office that was still on the cusp of primitive. That same system remained in place for an extraordinary time in the office even on those relic computers because it solved the immediate problem. Lots of little incremental improvements, of course, but essentially that email experience is probably 2/3 to ¾ the same today as it was back then.

On the other hand, anyone who has a Smart Phone would say it’s not just an evolution of the Bag Phone, but a new species. (What I find funny is that smart phones basically started to be called ‘smart’ around the moment they could do email.)

Until a few weeks ago, we thought we had what we needed. That is the nature of innovation. We thought, ‘Its just email, right? Email is soooooo 1990s.’ Except that professionals spend over 25% of their week on it. Except that 94% of knowledge workers felt they were overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacity. And, except that researchers say it has such an impact on us that it may change our breathing habits when we are using it. For something that was passé, it remains an ever present force upon us. That is why the dinner conversation on email remained with me so long afterword – email matters every day.

So something had to change. And it has. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, where yet another incremental improvement to the current state of email doesn’t really help matters at all. While with the introduction of IBM Verse we see an effort to rethink email into a personal productivity assistant – a knowledge client if you will — to simplify and mine the value out of the constant flow of messages we receive, using automation and analytics. As we need to squeeze the most productivity out of each day, and each worker, to drive value in a competitive environment, I’d think global business would be thirsty for this change.

Moreover, insurance particularly is a very process driven business. Email has been critical to productivity improvements, but here too, working on email clients developed more than 10 years ago, even if incrementally improved, has reached a point of diminishing returns. Insurance is already bought-in on the investment in social and analytics as well as pilots in Mobile. Perhaps harnessing the power of social, mobile, cloud and analytics on our desktops through upgrading an application that soaks up >20% of our week, now makes real sense. Instead of yet another .V+1 email upgrade, the investment to introduce Verse could represent a platform of productivity growth for insurance – particularly for agent / brokers.

Personally, I’m looking forward to when IBM rolls out Verse to its employees. The first thing I’m going to do is use it to ask Watson how to manage my email faster, because there is just too darn much of it.

Program Director, Cross-Portfolio Services Strategy

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