For the small company, internal communication is usually a matter of shouting across the office, scrawling a note, or at most, walking a couple of yards to the boss's office. But, as businesses grow, communication between employees becomes ever more difficult. At some point something new will be needed and, chances are, that will be an internal e-mail system.
But what size of company needs such a system?
'You certainly need it if you're an international company with multiple offices,' says Brian Ellis, group managing director of toy-makers, Hasbro UK, adding that, for all its usefulness, there are a couple of downsides: employees are prone to mailing each other the most trivial of items and long documents are difficult to read in their 'paperless' state.
Peter Joseph, market development manager for communications giant Novell, believes that, depending on the way in which they operate, even the smallest businesses can benefit. 'Internal e-mail is probably unnecessary where 15 or 20 people sit in an open-plan office,' he argues, 'but when they're based in different locations in the same building, time is wasted in moving around, using the phone, or failing to get hold of people.' Ian Brooksby, of IT consultancy Patterson Chase goes even further, citing an architectural practice where the five (largely home-based) partners make extensive use of e-mail when working on a common project.
Passing documents almost instantaneously can be a great plus, agrees John Sage, IT director of Honeywell UK, with the caveat that internal e-mail must be used judiciously. 'Elaborate graphs or an exceptionally long document tie up the electronic capacity and overload the system,' he cautions. But, for brief and urgent communications internal e-mail is essential for global organisations such as Honeywell whose 40,000 employees use the system extensively. 'It gives us the ability to communicate speedily with staff who are working in remote locations across different time zones.' Sage, is keen to stress, however, the need for a simple system - Honeywell's original system, introduced a decade ago was so cumbersome that employees rarely used it.
For some, however, the future is already here. EasyJet, the budget airline, which in two years has grown to 250 employees and a turnover of £60 million, banned paper - VAT receipts excepted - from the outset. The company believes that technology can completely replace paperwork in its internal communications system. 'Paper equals cost and inefficiency,' says sales and marketing director, Tony Anderson, 'A paperless office environment is an important element of our competitiveness and cost structure and essential to the company's open culture. Anything on a piece of paper can be scanned and stored more efficiently electronically so that it is available to everyone through their PCs.'
Internal e-mail looks set to become ever more prevalent for companies of all sizes, but, unless they take the rather draconian step of outlawing paper, it is likely to augment written communication, rather than replace it - indeed, it may simply result in an increase in the flow of information. As Ellis points out, 'My desk seems to have as much post and as many faxes on it as it ever did.' Something that no doubt sounds familiar to all of us.