Back in 2011, it was briefly news that a large company had banned email in favour of instant messaging and social networking tools. This decision looked to be an early reaction to the restrictive paradigm, that of the old postal-style communication just transferred to a digital version. Today it seems that decision could be considered rare, even unique. Email is still the predominant communication mechanism in business.
The original idea of social networking at work using digital technologies was proposed by Andrew McAfee in 2006 who introduced the term ‘enterprise 2.0’. He believed the advantage of these new technologies was that:
they can potentially knit together an enterprise and facilitate knowledge work in ways that were simply not possible previously.
Two bloggers have recently had opposing views on the issue of email vs social networking debate. JP Rangaswami, chief scientist at Salesforce.com, commented in favour of social networking, whereas Sameer Patel, whose job at SAP should espouse the same view, actually seemed to promote email over social networking.
Taking Rangaswami’s argurment first, he points out that initially (in the 1990s) email was good, allowing people to send quick, informal, short messages. Then it became more formal and email started to look like standard company memoranda. As email became an enterprise function, it got corrupted further – turning into a broadcast mechanism controlled by the sender, and consensus-by-email became a way of decision-making.
Rangaswami mentions two problems with email.
1. Because threading is often not possible, discussions become fragmented.
the fragmentation caused by email sometimes takes a darker route. Person A sends an email to a group of people. Some of them reply-all, seeing that it is the right thing to do. A few others then corrupt the conversation, by taking a few people off the recipient list and adding a few more, with liberal doses of cc and bc. Before you know it there are now multiple conversations with different carefully-chosen groups of people, with only a few, usually politically-motivated, members playing puppetmaster to all the conversations. Cut-and-paste then comes into play, as segments of one set of conversations get viewed in other, exclusive, environments.
2. How to handle email on vacation
[With social networks] you choose whom you follow. Amongst the people you follow is this class of person called your friend … These friends know you, know what’s important to you. Sometimes they even know what’s important to you despite your not recognising or acknowledging that importance … You no longer have to read every email. When you come back from vacation, whatever has passed in the stream unread can stay unread … Because you have a network of friends. They will DM you or private message you about the things that are important. They will SMS you or text you or IM you or Whatsapp you about the things that are urgent.
On the other hand, Sameer Patel makes these comments, referring to social networking as a ‘stream’ or ‘feed’.
You can hardly tell your boss that you missed an important update from him because you didn’t happen to be watching the stream.
There is a place for a feed in enterprise as part of a larger tapestry of interaction models. It’s an excellent way to ambiently learn and get wind of many things.
The world of work demands a significantly more decisive design [ie, email] – to facilitate closure of the repeatable tasks … yet with a facility that that helps me manage exceptions that will undoubtedly show up, unannounced.
I find his argument that social networks are not designed to drive closure seems hard to substantiate. Referring to the future of business communication, however, he does make a good point.
Business applications that will ultimately resonate won’t be about transactions or about social feeds but understanding the interplay between data, people, applications and content to get stuff done.
Almost in support of Patel, one of the big promoters of ‘social enterprise’, CEO of Salesforce.com Mark Benioff, is now cooling off on the subject.
In his original paper, McAfee did mention that there would be challenges for the new technology.
1. Employees will be too busy to use the technology, despite training.
2. Management will see it as reducing their ability to control, and opening up avenues for dissent.
It seems that cons of social networking are still working in favour of email. I don’t think that the debate has ended, though.
What are the case studies of companies who have successfully moved from email to an enterprise social network?