Mind the Adoption Gap: Why Do We Still Email Documents?

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“Business users tend to ignore IT tools that require them to switch contexts, juggle multiple browser windows, and learn new collaboration habits . . . Eighty-three percent of business users continue to abuse email, ping-ponging document attachments back and forth, thus creating document chaos.”

Ignore, abuse, create chaos: that harsh opinion comes from the company Mainsoft. Its premise is that there are vast wastes involved with our hesitancy to learn new collaborative technologies.

Mainsoft commissioned the research company uSamp to survey 317 U.S. business email users working in sales, marketing, human resources, and legal departments in companies with 100 or more employees. The research was specifically on their adaptation of SharePoint, a Microsoft product that allows companies to set up websites to share documents. (Other online collaboration services include Dropbox.com; Mainsoft sells a product designed to help companies better integrate and use SharePoint.)

What the survey found was a huge adoption gap. Of those surveyed, 83% preferred to email documents instead of uploading them to a public folder or shared drive.


According to the survey:

76% say it’s the fastest option.
44 % say it’s what they know best.
36% say all their business contacts are in email.

Users also said it was difficult for them to find documents in shared areas.

Adoption gaps are nothing new, but they’re huge issues for companies making everything from baby steps to big strides in embracing new technologies. MIT SMR’s new special report, Analytics: The New Path to Value, touches on this challenge in its fourth recommendation, to keep existing capabilities while adding new ones. The report notes, “As executives use analytics more frequently to inform day-to day decisions and actions, this increasing demand for insights keeps resources at each level engaged, expanding analytic capabilities even as activities are shifted for efficiencies.”

One solution? Older workers and executives may want to watch and take their cues from younger tech-savvy staff.

Intel strategy futurist Jim Fister, in an MIT SMR interview earlier this year, noted that there’s less of an adoption gap with Gen Y workers, who are comfortable learning and relearning technologies.

“Your young work force is wired, and we’re going to have to let them follow their paths, not force them to follow our paths,” he says.


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Comments (10)
Angie Mclester
As an administrator for over 10 yrs. to SharePoint, Google Apps. and CentralPoint by Oxycon emails and new ways to collaborate isn’t any secret. Putting together an email with a number of attachments can be a great form of communication. Although we are starting to see that the content management system document file sharing process is a better source of collaboration. Until recently this has been a separate process, email and file sharing. CMSs like Google Apps and CentralPoint has made email and file sharing on in the same. Integrating emails with files sharing is the best of both worlds.
Jo Bain
@Fabio Krauss Stabel This is a very interesting topic and one that applies not only in relation to technology change but social change as well. Perhaps there is a corellation between the two, as developments in technology give rise to new social channels and opportunities for disparate social groups to collaborate. 

I see this as a kind of 'comfort effect' where the more materially comfortable the population, the higher the complacency in all things, but especially those areas where serious effort would lead to radical (and usually good!)change.

A good topic for a thesis, I'd say!
Fabio Krauss Stabel
Hi there,

I'm a business management student in Brazil and I must say that I think the problem is way deeper than that. People aren't just afraid of the gap, the big problem is that they are not curious enough to want to see what's after the gap. And I must add that this is not true only with older people but also with young people! 
Take for instance the case of my blog(it's on the link above) I made a kind of wiki for all my collegues to collaborate and get higher grades.... but they don't collaborate, they are passive. they stick to what they know already and don't want to go anywhere further. 
For me, the gap is not learning how to use the new tools for it self, is the meaning of doing so. People have no curiosity to ask themselves if they can perform better, they wait for someone to give them the answer and, still, are afraid of using the solution.

I don't know, but I'm seriously thinking about wirting my thesis about this kind of behaviour.

Thanks for the resply Leslie, I liked your observation and references.  That takes me back to when I was part of the original "shadow IT" generation-- in early 1985.  I had just taken a marcom job at a large electronics manufacturer and was informed that, as the company's new copywriter, I would probably need to go to "Wang school" for a number of weeks before I was qualified to operate one of the terminals in the "Word Processing Department."  So instead I did what the other younger managers were doing: I bought a first-gen Macintosh and printer and never looked back.  Soon Macs were taking over the building over our unofficial and homespun, but suprisingly functional, AppleTalk network, and the Wang equipment was being torn out.  

My background is consumer electronics, so when I tell the kids today to put their toys away today it's from the position of being responsible for them even having them in the first place ;-)
Demoting email to serving up "short pieces of communications unrelated to anything important," as Ondrej suggests, is a possibility, but not one I see playing out in most organizations. 

People are spending some 3-4 hours a day in email, and companies I work with report most of their client and internal communications are carried out in email.  For compliance and risk mangement, Their priority is archiving email along with the documents they relate to.

So rather than serving up yet another collaboration interface, what makes most sense is to bring collaboration and social technologies into email.
I do agree with this story.. since I'm a in IT that's really irate if some calls or buzz us when we're busy,, email is the good thing for communicating with IT or with any business owners...
Leslie Brokaw
A story in Infoworld from over 4 years ago illustrates that this isn't a new challenge. Andy Mulholland, Global Chief Technology Officer of the Capgemini Group, told a conference in May 2006 that the use of then-emerging internet technologies was creating tension between younger and older employees. 

Those under 35 years old, he said, comprised a "shadow IT" department that embraces new technology, while those over 45 years old were more resistant -- and potentially holding back their business.

Here's the 2006 story:

Mulholland blogging today:
“Your young work force is wired, and we’re going to have to let them follow their paths, not force them to follow our paths”

Slightly off-topic regarding email use, but I couldn't disagree more.  When I inherited a younger "wired" staff, during our first meetings they remained fixated on texting and checking email on their phones-- so I instituted a policy that they could no longer bring any hand held devices into a meeting.  Sometimes "forcing them to follow our paths" is necessary in the interest of good business etiquette, maturity and productivity.
Wendy Keneipp
I can completely relate to this - on both sides!  If you work off of an intranet with shared files, it certainly helps to have a central repository and not have to email files back and forth.  However, things have gone so far beyond that simple solution being the only solution.  

With so many workers not in the same location, traveling, collaborating with partners, and small companies with no intranet/IT dept,  the need to work off of shared files stored remotely eventually becomes imperative.  Multiple versions of files floating around and potentially sending the wrong ones to clients, partners, or the press is bad business practice.  I've used SharePoint and Google Docs and found the sharing and storage pieces have eliminated redundant efforts, confusion over who does what, location of files, and version control discrepancies.  

It can make better business practice, used correctly.  If there are adoption issues, focusing on the business case - productivity, efficiency, client support, sales - could be a good route to gaining the necessary support.
It certainly is interesting. I still use email for it is a reflex - create a doc, a sequence of shortcuts and it's on the way to a colleague next to me. Document managed.
We have our own system to work with information, documents and have a great way to link them to the appropriate task/activity. It is a structured, manageable project-driven environment where information relates to work and time. 
But to share a document through that takes some 50 seconds longer and some amount of mental work compared to email. That's the difference. Order hurts, as some say:)
Will such systems ever compete with regular email in its ease of use? I thought so but now I begin to doubt it - the result to be achieved is not in speed or user friendliness. The goal is to have information as relevant as needed in the right time. 

We will have to teach ourselves to think differently about sharing information with others. Email should be demoted to "a short piece of communication not related to anything important", something like an SMS.