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Email Due for a Reboot

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Posted April 1, 2015 By Paul Rubens     Feedback

IBM and Microsoft are reinventing email with built-in analytics and other features that aim to make the aging app more relevant to how people work today.

Imagine a new enterprise application that could save every knowledge-based employee in your organization an hour a day. That would give your workforce a huge productivity boost.

That, in a nutshell, explains why Microsoft and IBM are busy developing next generation email productivity systems: Microsoft Office Delve and IBM Verse.

Email has been widely used as a business tool for more than 25 years, and in that time little has changed in terms of functionality. Although it's possible to set up filters to put incoming messages into pre-defined folders, current email applications aren't powerful enough to stop unimportant messages from getting through.

More Than Messaging

This problem is compounded by the fact that email has come to be used as much more than a message system, explained Alan Lepofsky, principal analyst at Constellation Research. "Email is used for everything: brainstorming, collaboration, meeting, following up meetings, archiving and so on," he said.

While there are already better alternative applications for specific tasks - like planning a project, for example - employees usually don't want to have to use another tool, he said. That means they end up trying to do everything in Outlook or another email program and spending too much time trying to locate needed information.

"Employees are critically dependent on email systems, and that means if we can improve them to get the right content at the right time, then there will be big benefits," he said.

Improved "next generation" email systems will be so important that they could become the deciding factor when companies choose whether to use Microsoft's Office productivity suite, or Google Apps, or IBM's offering in that space, according to Tom Petrocelli, research director for Enterprise Social, Mobile, and Cloud Applications at IT consulting firm Neuralytix. Google, Microsoft and IBM are aware of this, he added. "They know if they don't come up with something, the other companies will eat their lunch," he said.

Email Analytics and IBM's Verse

IBM's Verse uses a cloud-based analytics system to look at your emails and tell you which ones you should focus on. It does this by understanding your management chain, your direct reports and your peers, presenting notifications of your messages based on who it judges most important.

How does it understand who is important? The simplest way is for a user to flag the senders who they never want to miss a message from, but Verse can also decide for itself whose messages you need to see first. It does this in a number of ways. With access to your corporate directory, for example, it can understand hierarchical relationships and who is in your "chain of command."

"I never want to miss a message from my boss's boss," said Kramer Reeves, a messaging and collaboration product director at IBM. "I don't get much from him, but if I do I don't want to miss it. Why should I have to scan through my inbox?"

Another way it decides is based on the volume of messages you receive, revealing your key customers or team members.

This kind of email functionality will be available in the next few weeks, but IBM is already working on the next phase, Reeves said. "If you have a meeting tomorrow at 9 a.m., it will show you messages relevant to that. So it's not looking at individuals but groups, or what we call "sets" or collections of people."

The next phase after that will include entire projects, he said. "Say you are a bank and you are opening a branch. You want all the communications related to that branch, including schedules, files, videos and so on. So it will be bringing focus to everything that's important to that project."

Team Analytics and Trust

As well as an indexing engine, IBM is also working on "team analytics," Reeves said. The idea behind this is that if a customer copies in colleagues or requests that they be included in a briefing, for example, it can ferret out information about them (from sources such as Twitter) so you are more in the know.

Another form of analytics will be offered to administrators and community owners to provide better insight into how team members utilize their time, by looking at how much time is spent in meetings with customers and looking at the volume of emails exchanged.

"You'll be able to ask 'Is my team spending the right amount of time on each customer or client?' We are not prying into emails, but giving you the tools to analyze usage patterns and suggest productivity improvements," Reeves said.

This begs the question of how reliable a machine can be at selecting the messages you need to see. What if you get fired for ignoring a message that the software decided wasn't relevant and therefore didn't bring to your attention?

"Everyone I have spoken to doesn't trust the machine to get it right. What we need to know is why it is making the decisions that it does and provide a way to modify it," said Alan Lepofsky, adding, "Most people are happy to use spam filters, while acknowledging the need to check the spam box from time to time."

Microsoft Delve

Lepofsky believes more work needs to be done to reinvent email in ways that will make it truly useful, but that IBM and Microsoft are on the right track.

"Verse is a good inbox, but it is not (yet) enough of a change. I would have liked to have seen it more radical with chat and file sharing built in," he said. "Microsoft's Delve will offer a new user experience for finding and sharing content, and I believe it is fundamentally the most important thing done by Microsoft since moving Office to the cloud."

More announcements about Delve are likely to be made at Microsoft Ignite in early May, Lepofsky said. Julia White, a member of Microsoft's Office 365 team, wrote a blog post that offered a peek at how Delve works, noting that an "intelligent fabric" called the Office Graph "applies machine learning to map the connections between people, content and interactions that occur across Office 365."

Content surfaced includes email attachments, links shared in Yammer, Office 365 video and OneDrive for Business, according to the post. Delve will ultimately include "extensibility to reach beyond Office 356," the post promised.

More Email Intelligence

Lepofsky believes that there is a lot more intelligence to come from these systems. "I don't think we have scratched the surface yet of what they could do."

For example, he said, next-generation email systems could work in tandem with wearable technology.

"Imagine you are wearing a sensor device like an Apple Watch. The computer could filter the information it presents to you based on your mood. If you are stressed, it could filter everything but work stuff. But if you are relaxed, it could show you more family-related stuff," he said.

Paul Rubens has been covering enterprise technology for over 20 years. In that time he has written for leading UK and international publications including The Economist, The Times, Financial Times, the BBC, Computing and ServerWatch.

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