IBM Mail Next

At Connect 2014 (formerly Lotusphere) on Monday, IBM unveiled the next generation of its combination of email and social communications that it has dubbed “Mail Next”. Depending on the way you look at it, this is either the next generation of email that integrates with social business capabilities, or it’s social business that more tightly integrates with email. I view it as more of the former – a realization that email is central to the way that people work, but with some interesting social capabilities, task management and other functions integrated into the interface.

Although I have not had a chance to play with Mail Next because it has not yet been released, I like the concept and direction that it represents.

The fundamental goal of Mail Next is to bring together various email and social functions into a cohesive interface, thereby minimizing information overload by presenting what is most important to the user. Toward this end, and in keeping with a key IBM theme of the “Internet of People”, the interface includes a row of people icons across the top – the individuals that Mail Next thinks are most important to you based on your communication with them. Clicking on these icons reveals additional information, including a basic social graph of these individuals, your interactions with them and other relevant information.

My Kiwi-collaboration-expert-and-much-smarter-than-me colleague Michael Sampson and I were discussing Mail Next on Monday evening. His take, which you can (and should) read here is that Mail Next, instead of using people icons, would be more useful if it provided icons that represented conversations. I partially agree. While having conversation icons across the top would be useful, the people-centric nature of social gives credence to IBM’s decision to focus on personal relationships in the context of Mail Next. That said, I would like to see Mail Next v2.0 (v1.1?) offer the ability to define these icons as people or conversations or projects or deadlines or whatever else is important to me, since many of us would find it useful to have any or all of these front and center in our primary communications and collaboration tool.

IBM has focused heavily on social for many years – last year the company introduced Notes/Domino Social Edition, the initial attempt at doing what Mail Next does in a more refined and useful way. I believe last year’s and this year’s introductions represent, to some extent, IBM’s move to refocus on email given its central importance for most information workers, its ubiquity and its utility. That’s not to say that IBM had abandoned email in favor of social, but this is more of a subtle shift in emphasis back toward email while not minimizing the importance of social. This opinion was corroborated by one of IBM’s most important Notes/Domino customers (who shall remain nameless only because I have not asked his permission to identify him).

To be sure, Mail Next is an important step forward for improving the management of email, conversations and social content management, but I see it as more of a waypoint toward where IBM will take communications in the future. I would like – and expect – to see greater integration of IBM’s social analytics capabilities in Mail Next and more use of predictive analytics to tell me who should be involved in conversations or projects instead of who is a part of them.

In short, Mail Next represents an important step forward for both minimizing information overload by focusing first on what’s most important, and also because it integrates IBM’s social technologies with email in a very elegant way. It’s a nice offering that should be evaluated seriously by any IT decision maker that needs to help employees become more productive.

The Need for Messaging Intelligence

Because email is used so extensively for purposes of communication, collaboration and content management by information workers and the organizations that employ them, it represents the primary source about how information flows within a company, and between companies and their business partners.  For example, email data stores contain:

  • Data on what information workers are doing during working hours.  This information includes data on emails sent and received, to whom and from whom they are sent and received, files sent and received, how employees responded or did not respond to various communications, the tasks they assign to themselves or to others, the appointments they set, where they will be at specific times, requests that they make of others, etc.  Moreover, because social media, real time communications, voicemail and other content types are often integrated with email, email archives often contain a wealth of information on other modes of communications used by employees.
  • Information about how they collaborate with fellow employees, customers, business partners and others.
  • Information about how employees support internal workflows and key business processes across the organization.
  • Information on when employees work.
  • Information on how employees work, such as sharing content with others or sending content to their personal accounts.
  • Information about whether or not employees are complying with corporate policies, such as appropriate use or data leakage policies.

Clearly, email contains the primary source of information about content flows within an organization.  Because decision makers rarely have the tools available to extract meaningful data from this rich content source, they lack much of the insight into their organizations that would help them to ask better questions, make better decisions about how to manage their companies, respond more effectively to customers, or satisfy their compliance obligations – just a few examples of how this information might be used.  In short, decision makers need three fundamental capabilities:

  • Insight about what is being said and transmitted via email; who is generating, receiving and responding to this information and content; and where this information is being sent and from whom it is being received.
  • The ability to prioritize investigations based on these content flows.
  • The ability to perform triage on email content at the beginning of an investigation in order to minimize the effort and intrusiveness required to completely it fully.

It is important to note that by “investigations”, we are not referring to the invasion of individuals’ privacy, nor are we talking about monitoring user behavior for the purpose of unreasonable or excessive control.  While some may be sensitive to a misapplied notion of monitoring or investigating corporate email, particularly in light of the early June 2013 revelations about US government activities focused on widespread information gathering from email and other sources, what we are discussing here is much more about understanding how information flows through an organization’s email system and how decision makers can use this insight and intelligence more effectively to meet their legal, regulatory and best practice obligations.  The goal of improving insight through the appropriate application of Messaging Intelligence is to enable better decision-making and to understand the context about the activity of the organization without invading privacy.

We have written a white paper that provides more detail on this topic – you can download it here.