Email was never meant to be a workflow tool

Written by Ian James, Nov 27, 2012

Email is an ancient technology but it will probably be with us for longer yet. It's Ok for handling excepts to a process, but all too often it is the default workflow tool for a lot of businesses. That's far from ideal but the best we have got for now.

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Nobody loves email. But for business, we all use it. You might have a Facebook page instead of a website but you will still have an email address. It’s been around a long time. I remember my father coming home from work in the early eighties. He had just installed email for his team. He saw the potential and tried to convince me it was the best thing since the invention of the calculator. I was pretty sure it was not going to catch on. I know, don’t expect me to assess new technology with any accuracy. I felt the same way about AOL’s instant messenger. Why wouldn’t you just call?

So despite my misgivings and the depredations of spam, email is still with us and showing little sign of fading away. In a business context it is, of course, the preferred messaging system. But when you look closely it is more than that. In many organizations it is the default workflow tool. We move stuff along using email. A ton of stuff.

Email as a Workflow Tool

You probably have formal workflow applications in place for your business processes. But go take a poke around in the average email inbox. Sure, you will find emails that are just messages. Things like reminders to stay out of the CFO’s parking space. Or calls for volunteers to organize the company picnic. You will also find hand-offs between folks. Most of these are links in chains of informal processes. As a process consultant, I find it is always worth looking at people’s inboxes. And what I see reveals a lot about the health of the processes in the organization

What you typically find is, say, a salesperson with a bunch of threads about potential sales. Why isn’t that sitting in the CRM application?  The answer is usually that it does not handle the inevitable exceptions. In fact, I find that the more rigid the process the more it has trouble dealing with exceptions.  And people need to find an alternative way to manage that particular instance of the process. So they turn to email and continue until they can get it back into the standard workflow. It is more common than you think. Email has become the default workflow tool. And that can’t be good; given the blizzard of email most of us face in our working day. But until someone comes up with an alternative, email is here to stay.

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