One of the first #SocialBIM videos we released on The B1M in the May 2015 looked at how social media could help support the BIM workflow. I don’t think my whiteboard action was the reason for the huge amount of interest it generated; we know how important communications are to our industry. As a result I’ve been thinking a lot more about how we communicate in construction, reflected in the second four videos that we released this autumn.
The nature of my work means that I meet a lot of people who don’t work in construction, and I find it difficult to explain how on one hand, construction can be incredibly innovative, yet on the other hand, hugely traditionalist. Communications are a good example of the latter. We play golf, have awards ceremonies, and talk to each other using email. And what’s wrong with that?
Why do we use email?
2016 will be the 45th birthday of the first ever “email”, which was sent by US Programmer Raymond Tomlinson in 1971. This was the first use of the ‘@’ addressing system which allowed Tomlinson to direct his pithy message (“QWERTYUIOP”) to a user ‘at’ a particular machine. Email therefore appeared a full twenty years before the World Wide Web.
The term ‘email’ didn’t come into common usage until 1993 , but academics already had ‘electronic mail’ addresses back in 1985 when I was a fresher. This meant that you could message anyone, anywhere, as long as they had an email address and access to a computer (desktop only, I’m afraid). This was a revelation.
So email was already there when virtually all of us entered the world of work and began to use computers, and it hasn’t changed that much since. OK, so you could only really attach documents after MIME was invented in 1992, but that is still 23 years ago.
Innovation in email is pretty much non-existent.
So what has email got to do with BIM? Well BIM relies upon collaborative working, and collaborative working requires good communications. With project teams scattered across your country (or the world for that matter) and fewer opportunities for face-to-face meetings as our workload gets ever more challenging, we need communications tools that help, rather than hinder, the smooth process of decision-making.
Email just doesn’t cut it.
What’s wrong with email?
Now email does have its benefits:
- It’s extremely stable, which is why we’ve come to rely on it. Part of this is due to the distributed infrastructure.
- Everyone uses it – so we all have to, whether we like it or not. Standardisation is good, right?
- It is a ‘dark social’ tool, that is, conversations are private. Well, sort of.
But email also has its problems, too:
- Complete lack of any reliable audit trail (though we pretend there is);
- People falling out of the ‘CC’ box, or getting dragged into it;
- The tendency of people to send emails to absolve themselves of responsibility, instead of solving whatever the problem is;
- Editing the subject line to get someone’s attention (expletive deleted);
- A tendency for the tone of emails can be misinterpreted as aggressive;
- A constant an unremitting drain on time and energy;
- Guilt tripping about how to get to Inbox Zero, and of course;
Some of my Clients’ staff are so busy doing proper work that they never read their emails, which means that other people are wasting hours and hours of their time and resource composing long treatise which will never be read.
It also means that email is broken.
Dr Nick Morris of Newcastle University (now working in Malaysia) wrote an excellent series of posts about what is wrong with email. He boiled it down to three faults, and they are all human:
1. The Programmers haven’t improved the filing, sorting and meta-data capabilities of email. This means that all the effort you put in is not preserved anywhere in a searchable form, compounding the time-wasting nature of the medium;
2. The Receivers of emails somehow need to prove that they are doing a good job by forwarding every email to dozens of other people for no good reason whatsoever;
3. The Senders of emails who feel it essential to write long form content on a platform that should really be used for short communications.
What is more, email has been identified by several studies as an inappropriate tool for communication in BIM. In his 2012 paper, Muhammad Shafiq wrote ‘Email Is The Wrong Medium’ for collaborative working in BIM . We need something else.
What are the Alternatives?
Surprisingly, there are dozens of alternatives to email. There are project management tools like 37 Signals’ BaseCamp, closed private networks like SalesForce ‘Chatter’ and many companies have built their own in-house intranet based social networks, like Klick Health who built Genome . Even Twitter’s origins were as an SMS communication tool between a small group of people in a podcasting start-up. Techies are developing better communications tools all the time.
One of the huge steps forward in communication systems has been the development of platforms that use metadata, that is, information about the data, such as geolocation on photographs. Think about Wikis, how references to the same term produce links between articles. If only you could do this with email. Whilst email breaks the connection between things by making duplicates, modern communication tools keep the links and thereby build an asset.
If you want to have ‘dark social’ conversations there are much more effective, searchable tools available. I’ve been using Slack with several Clients and interest groups in the last few months. The B1M use Slack extensively for developing all their ongoing video series content with collaborators, and it’s been great when planning our approach to #SocialBIM. Slack’s interface is much more practical and produces a clear audit trail. It isn’t beyond the wit of man to introduce such a platform into the BIM toolbox.
It’ll Never Happen
The problem with replacing email is that it’s so well entrenched. If we want to make changes we need to learn by example, and there are some available. In 2010 Atos banned email, and their ‘Zero Email’ programme has been hugely successful. The Atos experiment shows how important senior leadership is to changing organisational culture.
Don’t be lured into thinking that this is a generational thing. We won’t be able to rely upon the next generation to get rid of email for us. Unlike other platforms such as Facebook, where under-25s are underrepresented (they much prefer Tumblr, Instagram and YouTube), email use amongst the young appears to be as high as it is amongst those aged 30-65 .
Meanwhile the tech landscape is changing and the way we use emails is changing too. For example, 88% of 16-24 year-olds now own a smartphone , and 66% of emails opened in Q3 of 2014 were opened on a mobile device . That means writing long form emails may well be a dying art.
So will email finally die in the next generation? It has been around for such a long time, and people have other, more important things to bother about. But once you find another platform that works so much better, and if a group of you find yourself talking on it instead of in ridiculously multiplying email threads, we might just reach a tipping point. And in the meantime, don’t forget to save yourself a lot of heartache, and pick up the phone instead.
Further Reading and References:
- Rise in the use of the word ‘email’
- What is ‘Dark Social?’
- Dr Nick Morris on Email
- Email use and BIM
- Email is the wrong medium
- Genome by Klick Health
- Slack – the Messaging App for Teams
- Zero Email at Atos
- Email use by age group
- Offcom Smartphone ownership data
- Email opens by mobile
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This article was originally published in The B1M Mail. Get your free (hard, yes hard!) copy here.