Are enterprise social network sites an opportunity to remove the burden of email from information workers’ workload and move into a more collaborative messaging environment? While social networks have the opportunity to redefine messaging within enterprises, replacing email should not be a primary goal of their deployment.
First off, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that email is the best and only answer for passing messages within a company just because email has always seemed to be here. The global email system we have today is an evolution of complex workarounds that started years ago from a set of simple protocols for exchanging text-based communications. Quite frankly, it is a testament to the Internet’s open source-driven innovation and the creativity of email product vendors that the global email system works as well as it does. However, what we are learning from enterprise social network sites is that how we communicate within companies can be different to how we communicate with most of the outside world.
Enterprises are leaving an incredible amount of intellectual property locked inside of their email system and forcing their employees to spend far too much time “managing” messages, many of which they likely do not need or want. There are many use cases that would be better suited in a social network site (group messaging via distribution lists is a good example). Social network products have the luxury of learning from email and other forms of messaging systems, particularly in regards to assumptions about privacy of messages, recipient inclusion/exclusion, and longer-term sharing/KM opportunities. Social network sites are emerging to fill the role of a robust internal messaging platform that enables a more open and reusable flow of intersecting and persistent conversations, which can also form the basis of a powerful knowledgebase.
However, social network sites are still in relative infancy and haven’t gone through the school of hard knocks like email. In addition, most information workers have at least developed a basic set of skills and are quite familiar with email. While Facebook may be the most popular activity on the Internet, use of enterprise social networks is far from common. For now, even though there is plenty of overlap between email and social networks, plenty of room exists for both to operate. The curmudgeon in me seriously doubts email will ever be completely eliminated.
Instead of just comparing email with social networks, a more productive approach is to consider the type of messaging that meets the immediate needs of individuals and can also benefit a company in the long term. The context in which messages are exchanged makes a huge difference in regards to enabling the reuse of information contained within them and managing participation in the threads that emerge. Email is assumed to be private. Social networks, while they can accommodate private messages, are assumed to be public (or semi-public, in the case of an intranet). These differing assumptions alone shows that email and social network sites will co-exist for the foreseeable future.
Subscribers to Gartner for Technical Professionals (GTP) can read more about the relationship between email and enterprise social network sites in the report “The Post-2.0 Era: Social in the Context of My Work,” where the concept of a Social Online Workplace is introduced. If your company is a Gartner customer you may already be able to access this and other GTP reports. To see if you do, contact your company’s Gartner Membership Administrator. If you do not know who that is ask Gartner.
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