Most professionals experience the tyranny and terror of email. Yet they remain wed to it? Will that ever change?

Everyone knows the problems: constant distraction, ridiculous volumes, rampant misuse of copying, too many accidental replies to all, message content unrelated to subject lines, confusing dialogues when someone on a thread replies to a message that’s not the last one, neurotic compulsion to check for new messages, finding old messages in a folder (or just the inbox), managing huge attachments (yanked from native locations), and, and, and…

These problems were clear some 25 years ago. In 1991 I ran practice support in a large law firm. It had been using email several years. Lawyers and staff alike saw all these problems and some wanted a solution. So when I learned about a product (Collabra Share for cc:Mail) that integrated with the firm’s email and that created forums and threaded discussions, I looked. And I liked it.

I persuaded a group of young partners to try it. After a week or two of use, I assembled the beta users to discuss the experience. All liked it. But none would adopt it. To a person, each was unwilling to check in more than one place for messages. Never mind that the software could also send email alerts.

This story has repeated many time since then. Many large firms have tried but few have succeeded in moving a significant volume of email traffic to modern collaboration tools (e.g., Yammer).

In December, I was reminded of this conundrum when Dan Hauck,  CEO of ThreadKM showed me his company’s eponymous product. The software creates a collaboration space where conversations replace email and users can connect documents to conversations. ThreadKM also provides “light weight” (my words) project management. Here are some key descriptors, quoted or paraphrased, from the website:

  • “Introducing a New Paradigm in Collaboration – Connect information, projects and people together like never before.”
  • Share real-time conversations with colleagues about matters and receive notifications on any device.
  • “Discuss ideas, post links, and invite clients to a focused, issue-specific thread.”
  • “Reduce email by over 50% “


In a demo, I liked the features and found the user-interface and experience well designed. I quickly saw how this product could be very useful. (My usual qualifier is that this is not a product review and I did not go out and evaluate competing systems. Dan contacted me, ThreadKM sounded interesting, so we set up a call.)

The question I have is whether ThreadKM or any product like it can displace more than 5% of email. This is not a knock on ThreadKM; rather it reflects my early and repeated experience. In fact, I told Dan that I would write a blog along these lines and he had a chance to review this before I published.

Dan was fine with everything I wrote above. He asked to add that as a former big-law attorney himself, he recognizes that fellow lawyers can be skeptical about the impact of new technologies. He said, illustrating his point, “Several years ago it was predictive coding. Today it’s big data. ThreadKM enables real-time information flow that comes from both people and systems. In a few years, firms that are still trying to use email for matter-centric collaboration, document and project management will find themselves still frustrated, if not falling behind.”

Indeed, I may be in the minority. As I was working on this post, I read What’s on Your KM Wish List? by Debbie A. Ting of Paul Weiss, posted at the ILTA KM blog (7 Jan 2015). Topping her wish list is that lawyers “embrace enterprise social networking and collaboration tools as their primary means of communication and working together instead of email.” She explains five reasons this will happen, including email overload, home social network use, and KM practitioners acting as champions.

So, there you have it – two points of view. I hope I’m wrong. I turn it over to you to comment here on whether and when ThreadKM or any other “email substitute” will take a significant bite out of email volume.


[End Note:
I offer one depressing hypotheses about the future. Digital natives (workers who grew up with social media and texting) will behave no differently than their elders. When they start jobs, they have to adopt the communication form of their seniors. By the time they have sufficient clout to make changes, I bet they too will remain wed to email.

While working on this post, I also came across American Workers Say Internet Makes Them More Productive in the NY Times (30 Dec 2014). Quoting from it:

“Only 4 percent of those surveyed said social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn were “very important” to their jobs. E-mail, by comparison, was very important to 61 percent of workers…. That mismatch has pushed Facebook to test a version of its social network specifically for workplaces, with a more public release scheduled to be released in the next few months.”]

Update (14 Jan 2015): The day after I posted this, futurist Jacob Morgan published Will Email Die? in Forbes. He concludes it should be banished internally but will survive across organizations. I assume that lawyers relative to many corporate knowledge workers communicate much more outside the organization.  Hmmm.