E-mail will gradually diminish as a primary online communication tool in the coming decade.
The unstructured and linear nature of e-mail is the overall reason why e-mail file communications in business and professional organizations will be replaced by other forms of communication. They will be imbedded with “project” organizing tools that enable lawyers, other professionals, staff, and clients to communicate on a file, share ideas, and manage tasks in a cohesive way, beyond anything e-mail was ever designed or is able to do.
This platform is different from project management programs. It integrates some aspects of project management with communications and automation to create a far less rigid, more fluid communication and task management platform.
Already in their early forms, these communications and task management applications offer a sophisticated ability to provide context, organizational structure, task management, as well as ongoing follow-up and filing. The technology is able to significantly automate these processes without the need for ongoing human input into filing or organizing the information.
These sophisticated online collaboration tools have the capabilities to provide companies with the ability to internally manage files and projects and to communicate with clients with respect to issues, tasks, or steps in a file. Incredibly, all that can be done today at a relatively minimal cost.
These programs, in my opinion, are far superior to using just e-mail as the primary online communication tool. They can have the capability to provide the following core functions:
• Allow the communications and tasks to be organized by matter, issue, or subject;
• Facilitate seamless ongoing tracking, follow up, and modifications of communications and tasks;
• Automate in real time the filing and presentation of communications in their relevant folders, projects, or tasks;
• Automate task creation;
• Manage deadlines and tasks using some elementary features of project management;
• Provide a visual layout that is easy for humans to understand, incorporating all of the above information;
• Fully and easily searchable; and
• Linked to relevant file documents that are in a separate or integrated cloud storage system.
E-mail cannot meet any one of these functions.
For example, e-mails mix important and trivial communications with no regard to issue or subject. They are not manageable on a continuous basis. E-mail software has no sophisticated automated processes for managing tasks and projects. They have no multi-faceted structure. They are not easily and fully searchable, particularly with mobility in mind. They are not linked to file documents (attachments to individual e-mail does not do the trick).
Important communications longer than a few paragraphs, whether internally or externally, no longer have to be put on letterhead and manually filed in a document management system in order to manage the information contained in that communication. Being able to access and follow up on such memo-style communications using the above key features — beyond just document storage — is a significant advantage in online collaboration.
Day-to-day internal communications with some members of a firm are also important. For example, in my case, in an average week I would send and receive an untold amount of e-mails with my firm’s administrative and accounting clerk, litigation clerk, and associate.
Accessing these e-mails by issue or topic after the fact is difficult, time consuming, and frustrating. I extensively use e-mail folders, but others may not. My system does not capture sent e-mails, only received e-mails (unless you copy yourself on your own e-mails, thereby increasing your own inbox load.).
Searching in Outlook is not a replacement to the above core key functions. Searching for a particular e-mail is fundamentally different from a logical organization of written communication or tasks. Further, Outlook searching does not work uniformly on all mobile platforms and not everyone has the patience, time, and tech skills to know how to locate a particular e-mail, and locating any one e-mail does not tell you the entire context of the discussion.
All this creates not only frustration (which is bad enough) but also a tremendous loss of productivity, efficiency, and progress.
Automation alone will do wonders. Through automation, those e-mails — that people working on a file routinely send among themselves — are automatically sorted, filed, and instantly accessible within the project/file, task, or group of tasks of the online collaboration application. That applies to e-mails sent from any e-mail program.
Some advanced complex business organizations are already phasing out e-mail as the primary form of communications for managing projects and tasks. E-mail may still be used in a corollary way, or as a tool for an ongoing follow-up of issues and work. The project or task-related e-mails will be automatically filed and sorted in the right space so everyone can see after the fact the entire context of the discussion and its place in relation to the project or task.
In my law firm, we have recently started implementing this technology. As tends to be the case, human adaptation to new technology is much more costly and difficult than the technology industry cares to admit. Notwithstanding the arm-twisting of staff and colleagues I have to engage in when implementing new technologies, ultimately efficiency will take hold. In my personal case, as the “project leader,” the advantages were numerous and became apparent very quickly indeed.
While people still seem to prefer e-mail over online collaboration tools, it will not last for long. E-mail simply does not have the power to resist the major advances in technology that are happening now.
Many online cloud storage services already offer commenting and other simple features of online collaboration. But such features tend not to have the sophistication of a comprehensive communication and task management tool that can help lawyers manage key aspects of files and automate a lot of filing and sorting of e-mail communications.
In the coming months, I will be reviewing and evaluating various online collaboration applications currently available in the market, including those offered to business organizations in the mainstream and some of those aimed specifically at the legal industry.