The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail

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switch to other communication modes such as e-mail to trade ideas and reach consensus. At Box, Schillace says, “We aren’t just trying to sell hard disk. We are really trying to be this next-generation platform for content and collaboration, where you build your business into it and on top of it.”

In IPO registration papers filed in March, Box said it has 25 million users, including at least one user at 99 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. Some 34,000 organizations pay to use the system.

To get even more customers using the software, and for more time each day, Levie and his team are now aiming to make Box into a tool for generating documents, not just moving them around or revising them. “Today we are a place where you take content you have created somewhere else and you upload it into Box, manually or through synchronization,” Levie says. “In the future we’d like to be much closer to where you are creating that information. There are a lot of benefits when you can get closer. That’s the next wave of innovation you will see from Box.” (The company has delayed its IPO due to market conditions.)

Of course, not every workplace revolves around documents. Says Asana’s Moskovitz, “We have a customer who makes bicycles: Mission Bikes. When they are done you have something you can ride, not a PowerPoint. The idea that a document is always the work product is a very knowledge-worker-centric viewpoint.”

And to be fair, that’s not what Box is arguing. But there are still plenty of companies where collaborating on content is the mission; think of a textbook publisher or an advertising agency. People inside these organizations might use Box for document sharing, Asana for task management, and, yes, e-mail for communicating with customers. “There’s lots of shared ideas and interesting intersections between these technologies,” Levie says. “People will use different solutions in different parts of their lives. There won’t be just one player.”

IV. Time is of the Essence 

One of the strange ironies of the business world is that the more experience, influence, and power a worker accumulates—that is, the farther they rise up the ranks of management—the more time they spend chained to a conference table or a speakerphone. If there’s one business institution people despise even more than e-mail, it’s the meeting.

“If you go to any large company—VMware, Cisco, any large software company— pretty much all of the non-individual contributors are in meetings constantly,” says Raj Singh, founder and CEO of a Menlo Park, CA startup called Tempo AI. “Seventy to 80 percent of everyone’s time is spent in meetings. You hear it all the time: ‘It’s 6 o’clock and I didn’t get anything done today, I was stuck in meetings all day.’”

Why do managers feel they have to go to so many meetings? Why does so little get accomplished? Those are important questions that any large enterprise should be asking itself. But the meeting, as an institution, probably isn’t going to wither away, which raises an interesting question. If so many people structure their days around meetings, then perhaps the meeting—or more generically, the calendar appointment—is another candidate for the atomic unit of work: the organizing principle for everything else going on in a business.

That, in fact, is the view that Singh’s startup Tempo takes. The company belongs to a small sisterhood of spinoffs from SRI International, the Menlo Park R&D lab where the Department of Defense sponsored a groundbreaking artificial-intelligence project in the early 2000s called CALO, for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes. Other products of CALO include Siri, Trapit, Desti, Kuato, and BBVA’s Lola. All are oriented in some way toward using machine learning and natural language processing to observe how people work in information-rich environments and serving up the information they need, when they need it.

Tempo co-founders  Thierry Donneau-Golencer (left), Raj Singh (center), and Corey Hulen (right)

Tempo co-founders Thierry Donneau-Golencer (left), Raj Singh (center), and Corey Hulen (right)

One project within CALO was called Prep Pak, and was designed to scour an individual’s computer or an organization’s servers to locate all the information a person might need to get ready for a meeting. The question behind Prep Pak, says Singh, was “If you take a bunch of disparate data—e-mails, documents, contacts, et cetera—how do you connect them together to improve the preparation of somebody for their next event, and throughout their day?”

SRI hired Singh as an entrepreneur-in-residence and asked him to form a company around the Prep Pak technology. The challenge, he says, was how best to organize and present the information. “We had this ‘Aha’ moment, shortly after we closed our seed round, where we realized, ‘What better dashboard than the calendar itself?,’” Singh says. “The calendar was already what Norman Winarsky [SRI’s vice president of ventures, licensing, and strategic programs] likes to call ‘the expression of intent’: what you are going to do, where you are going to go. Why not pull together the other data and display it alongside the calendar?”

Tempo’s first product, released in February 2013, is a free iPhone app that taps into your existing calendar, e-mail accounts, and contact list, as well as your social media accounts, to present a personalized view of each day’s upcoming events. The screen for a particular meeting might show a list of participants, with contact info for each (including buttons that let the user call or message participants directly). There would also be recent tweets and other status updates from participants; phone numbers and access codes for conference calls; a map to the meeting location; and related e-mails and attachments. If you’re late to a meeting, there’s even a button for mass-texting an “on my way” message to other participants.

The rule at Tempo is “almost zero meetings,” Singh says. But he thinks making meetings more productive is a more realistic goal than trying to get rid of them altogether.

“A lot of people think of meetings as not-work,” he says. “But in your world, it is probably a big part of your work. Where Tempo fits in this picture is, a lot of time is wasted in meetings getting people up to speed. The data is scattered. We can pull that information together automatically to make you better prepared for a meeting, so hopefully you can run a more productive meeting.”

Tempo isn’t designed to eliminate e-mail usage. In fact, it draws on e-mail as a source for documents and contact information. But Singh does believe that the calendar is a better scaffolding for all of the other materials swirling around in the life of the average knowledge worker or manager.

After all, a calendar is just a variation on a task list—one where most of the tasks are collaborative and will occur at a mutually agreed time and place. That makes it a logical framework for a personal-assistant app that’s always ready to tell you where you’re going next, who you’re going to see, and what you need to know.

“The story we pitch is that work revolves around meetings,” Singh says. “Meetings are the center of the universe and should be the pivot point, not the documents and not the e-mail.”

Whether you believe that or not, it’s interesting to ponder what knowledge work might look like if our calendars were the focal point. In my own work, I stay organized using cobbled-together kit of desktop and mobile communications tools such as Apple Calendar, Gmail, Word, WordPress, Facebook, Pocket, Evernote, and old-fashioned Post-it Notes. I’d be happy to hand over more functions to a calendar-centric personal assistant—even if it were a bit of a taskmaster—if it meant I could spend more time thinking and less time combing through my e-mail for meeting-related materials.

V. The Facebookiverse

A brief word about social media inside business organizations. Facebook’s success building a giant advertising business around the idea of the social graph has inspired a number of enterprise-focused imitators, such as Jive, Socialtext, Salesforce’s Chatter, and Microsoft’s Yammer. The central feature in most of these systems is a company-wide social feed, resembling the Facebook News Feed, where personnel share work-related questions and status updates. Each update can become the locus for a conversation where ideas get shared and decisions get made.

Yammer and Jive are careful not to advertise their services as alternatives to e-mail. But many organizations subscribe in the hope that e-mail volume will decrease as more conversations move into the social feed. IT services company Capgemini, for example, claimed in 2011 that it reduced internal e-mail traffic by 40 percent within 18 months of adopting Yammer.

One definite selling point for social systems, says Yammer CEO David Sacks, is the fact that they’re centralized, so they become … Next Page »

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One response to “The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail”

  1. Christopher Noble says:

    Congratulations on a well-researched article on a compelling topic.