Email or social networking – which is better for business communication

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, 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 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?


International social networks

For many people in the developed world, and in some developing countries like South Africa, the overwhelming social network is Facebook. That was my view until I spent some time in Odessa, Ukraine. Then I was introduced to a different world where Facebook, and others like Google, are not the preferred social network. From a marketing point of view this creates a challenge as it makes the selection of channels more difficult.

In the Russian speaking world the common Internet applications that are the equivalent of Facebook and Google search are vKontakte (English version here)  and Yandex (English version here). In a post about social business around the world, Dion Hinchcliffe mentioned the challenge of “social balkanization” that different social networks are creating. The Economist also has an analysis of the Internet business in Russia.

World map of social networks


Dion Hinchcliffe reminded his western readers:

… the Asia and Eastern European world of social networking looks quite different than it does here in the United States.

Companies that aspire to be global have to recognise that not only must they deal with the proliferation of western Internet channels – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus – but also different channels that predominate in other parts of the world.

Welcome to marketing in the 21st century. Please share your experiences if you have used the non-western social networks, particularly for marketing.

Elucidating “Confused of Calcutta”

One of the deep thinkers on technology is JP Rangaswami, whose blog Confused of Calcutta I have been reading for some time. But while he writes with erudition, he sometimes misses his targets, especially when it comes to enterprise software. As Dennis Howlett has commented – his approach is “way too esoteric for operational people to get.”

I have been sitting on two of JP Rangaswami’s (JPR) theoretical musings for some time while I tried to figure out what they were getting at. One is Thinking about the Social Enterprise, the other is a concept he proposes about application types (pillars) of enterprise software.

In the social enterprise blog, JPR talks convincingly about customer-centred communication, but there is still something missing for me. A socially-enabled enterprise should be able to include any object – what about being able to follow entities inside the enterprise, not just people but also things, like orders, parts and processes? From a financial and operational perspective, how could social enterprise activities be interpreted in terms of measurable outcomes?

Last year, MIT professor Andrew McAfee put the social enterprise movement into context, referring to an InformationWeek article which noted:

Part of the reason social networking tools still aren’t mainstream at most organizations is because Enterprise 2.0 is still considered more of a “movement” than a business imperative. The movement’s evangelists employ the kumbaya language of community engagement rather than the more precise language of increasing sales, slashing costs, and reducing customer complaints.

The good news, according to McAfee, is that he and others are working on creating compelling evidence for the operational guys.

Turning to the other topic, I discovered JPR’s concept of “application pillars” sometime later. It’s been around for a while, in 2005 Phil Wainewright summarised it.

Publishing: Any application that generates data will act as though it’s a content publisher, using RSS or similar to publish its data. The significance of this is that it reduces all of these applications to the level of raw feed generators …

Discovery: This is the application that gives everyone a “Google experience” — a single, homogenous database where everything is stored and where everything is discoverable … the information database is open access, with access and authorization controls added only as necessary for specific items or classes of information.

Fulfilment: This is the application that makes things happen, most notably for customers. Identity management plays a crucial role here, controlling the catalog choices that are shown to each user and their rights to approve shipment.

Conversation: All the channels of collaboration between people, either inside the organization or beyond its walls.

It took me a while to grasp the concept because it didn’t seem right, in fact rather simplistic. In my opinion, the pillars fails to recognise that enterprises are not just about data.

For organisations that make and store physical things, rather than just move information around, I struggle to see how the pillars would cope with the activities of a transaction – something that involves ordering, making, storing and distributing an item.

Moreover, one of the critical aspects of business that ERP systems help to manage – processes – doesn’t seem to fit into the pillars concept. Perhaps what is needed is a modification to include two more pillars – transactions and processes.

I apologise for taking so long to comment on these two concepts, but I believe the issues raised by JPR deserve to be given serious attention as the basis for a new framework for enterprise software – not just left as vaguely academic ideas. JPR comes from a background in banking (Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein) and telco (British Telecom), which makes me wonder if there are aspects he doesn’t appreciate about businesses that actually make or sell things.

Let me know if you think I have mis-understood either, or both, of these concepts.

Boomers, get with social networking!

Two blogs on the TomorrowToday blog highlighted for me the current disconnect between many (mostly older) managers and business owners, and the world of social media.

Being a ‘more mature’ social media user, I am in the minority for my age group, and it seems most of my peers consider social networking to be rather pointless, aimless and valueless.

Under the headings Twitter, FaceBook and Social Media are just like a Fax Machine and An Open Letter To Boomer Bosses Everywhere the blog makes two important points:

  • social media is here and while it may currently be a nice area, it will grow
  • current managers and owners (of the baby boom generation) need to start opening up to the social media world

When my generation was young, we used the expression “get with it” to exhort the then older generation to understand our attitudes and interests. It’s about time we started using that expression on ourselves.

Look here to get a good definition of who make up the baby boom generation.

The power of social media brought home

I know there are many stories and case studies of the power of social media to get spread a message. But it always reinforces the point when it happens to you.

Stuart Lynn, R&D director at one of SYSPRO’s competitors, recently cited a personal experience – How can your business use twitter? – in which a blog he wrote about innovation got more coverage than he could have imagined as a result of Twitter:

… even though I only have a few hundred followers myself, within the first hour, my original tweet had an audience of over 30,000 people. Within a couple of days my blog had gone around the world …

I recently had my own ‘wow moment’, maybe not as big as Stuart’s, but significant nonetheless. Here is how it went.

1. We had a press release from a UK reseller:

K3 Business Technology acquires DigiMIS
K3 has an existing relationship with DigiMIS which provides hosting services to a number of K3 customers who deploy SYSPRO ERP and Microsoft Dynamics.

2. SYSPRO only recently set up its own Twitter ID (sysprosales) which had very few followers, but the news was tweeted:

K3 acquires DigiMIS – full-service hosting solution available for SYSPRO

3. I picked it up and retweeted it.

4. I too only have a few hundred followers but star analyst, Ray Wang, saw it and tweeted:


Now consider that Ray’s audience is over 6,000!

5. When we checked the followers for @sysprosales, we could see see how that one message had given a good push start for our company Twitter profile.


What we now realise is that we have to sustain that momentum, and bring SYSPRO even more into the social sphere.

There are case studies of big social media successes – you don’t hear of the small ones. The one we had was a small one, but there must be many more like that which do not make the news. Have you had one which you can share?

Finally, with all the positive stories, it amazes me that there is such a small presence by Oracle in the social networking space, compared to similar-sized organisations – SAP, Microsoft, IBM etc. I can only think that it reflects an incredible need for control in that company.

A sign that social business is growing up

Michael Fauscette made some wise comments about a new company, Pragmatic Enterprise 2.0, that announced itself recently:

without a methodology, a risk mitigation approach, the correct skills and change management a project is doomed. Businesses need enterprise class, scaleable social tools, social processes and knowledgeable assistance to pull off this level of business transformation.

Earlier this week some colleagues announced a partnership that is both good news for businesses that want to do social transformation projects but also an indication that social business is growing up.

I think Michael is right.

I also had a discussion with one of the founders, Michael Krigsman, on Twitter that their product diagram looked like it was designed by a committee and was difficult to understand. I am looking forward to how things develop on that front.

Twitter and CompuServe

There are not many things new in life, or in IT. I was reminded recently that there have been predecessors to Twitter, as in Before There Was Twitter, There Was Dave Winer’s Instant Outliner

I can add another one: CompuServe. In the late 1980s, I got onto CompuServe because I reckoned that I had to build some experience on communicating electronically; South Africa in those days didn’t yet have the Internet. I became a member of an interest group for data warehousing, the IT field I was in. 

It took a while before I became part of what we would now call a social network, but once my connections had got to a certain level I got invited on international conference calls, and made contact with a data warehouse consultant who I eventually worked with at data warehouse DBMS vendor Redbrick.

So while we look at technologies like Twitter as revolutionary, it’s worthwhile remembering that other technologies paved the way; and in twenty years time we may be remembering Twitter like I did CompuServe