This post was written for my client gnowsis and appeared initially on their blog:
No question about it: email is on trial. 40 years after the first email was sent, the role of email as a main bearer of business communications is disputed, resulting in striking headlines by companies announcing zero-email policies, or being scrutinized in the highly regarded self-experiments of IBM researcher Luis Suarez, who tries to live his professional life sans email. A good moment to reflect email in the light of emerging social business platforms.
Personally, I acknowledge email as a tool for collaboration (after all, that is what I used it for over the last two decades), and I do not share an approach of complete email substitution by social business platforms in particular or social media in general. Business communication without email is a reasonable use-case for Enterprise 2.0 applications, but it is not their main use case. Compared to email, social platforms offer a couple of valid, but differentiated capabilities and benefits. Here are a couple of reasons, how social business tools deal with communication in a different way than email systems do:
- Public nature of communication:
Sharing and commenting of information in a social business platform almost always happens in a public (at least a semi-public) space, including the possibility, that the range of recipients or participants of such business conversations extends or completely changes over time. Companies, which use social platforms, give room for and appreciate that kind of publicity. Still, email remains as a resort for private or confidential one-on-one or closed group communications.
- Type of communication:
Communication in social business environments highly resembles the blueprint of spoken conversations, whereas email tends to the message/reply-message form of far less colloquial nature. This leads to a couple of consequences: because of its conversational characteristics, communication in social business platforms covers other topics (and covers topics in a quite different manner) than in email communication. This is anecdotal, but I experience plenty of valuable conversations in social business platforms, which i never expect (and never expected) to happen via email. For me a main reason to advocate the side-by-side coexistence of mail messaging next to conversational communications in the social interface of a collaboration platform. At least for the time being.
- Sustainability of content:
It is a known and well documented fact, that email systems are communication silos, which retain information rather isolated and detached from their underlying reason-to-be. It is therefore hard, to re-establish the context of a historic mail exchange. This is fundamentally different in the messaging systems of social business platforms, which preserve conversations more tightly integrated with the context of their origination. In Refinder, the provision of a past context by means of explicitly related information and the expansion of past information to new contexts by implicitly derived recommendations is a core feature and differentiator.
- Preservation of communication:
Business communication always embodies know-how. Such know-how tends to disappear in personal email folders or to rot away in corporate mail repositories. Retention and retrieval of know-how from past business conversations is much easier in social business platforms, where conversations serve as narrations of work and encapsulate corporate intelligence. As such, know-how remains available, accessible and reusable for the entire workforce, despite of their creators leaving the company.
Email and social business communications have both their own right to exist in the business. There is overlap, but increasingly there is differentiation. The digital workplace affords its inhabitants to develop skills and sensitivity to chose the most appropriate communications channel. And I´m pretty sure, that social business platforms will host and integrate further forms of communication (think voice or video) soon.