Enterprise Social Networks
Most people will be aware of consumer social networks. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have forever changed the way that we share, access and store information. Both my Grandmas now how their own Facebook accounts and my Mum eagerly signed up when she realised she could use it to check up on me whilst I was at University. Phenomenon like viral videos are made possible by rapid communication and connections shared through people that may be geographically or even socially remote from each other. Enterprise Social Networks allow the same benefits in a business environment which is currently stuck with humble email that is no longer the most appropriate tool for purpose.
When email was first revealed to the world it revolutionised how we could communicate. It was instant. It gave us the ability to share a wealth of information in a way that was previously not possible. But since then the world has changed. It was instant, but now instant isn't fast enough and checking emails is not convenient I comparison to other methods of communicating. Yes, the message may arrive instantaneously but when time taken to read through emails, sort them, reply to them and skim past those annoying environmental statements is factored in it seems more burdensome than efficient. It simply feels like a dated approach to sharing information that has now been out paced by other services.
Atos, the global IT services company, is currently in the process of removing all email from their business. Why? Because of the reasons outlined above. Social media beats it in all the categories that it used to lead and allows for even more opportunities.
"The volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business. It is estimated that managers spend between 5 and 20 hours a week just reading and writing emails. Furthermore, they are already using social media networking more and spend around 25 per cent of their time searching for information."
Email is bloated. The recent advent of 'Conversation View' where emails are folded into threads in an attempt to reduce clutter and confusion in your inbox is an attempted remedy to this. This approach has been adopted by providers such as Google, Apple and Yahoo but still fails to resolve the time commitments associated with email. It makes little sense to continue to use such a dated technology when better solutions which we are more adept at using exist. Just last year, Digital Trends championed the view that email was still the killer app of the internet and confidently stated that "it doesn’t look like anything is going to change that in the near future". I disagree. DigitalTrends is perhaps correct when it discusses the "high technical bars" of Social Networking but I feel this is relative to a userbase that is becoming much more technically literate. Further, we have a generation entering the labour market that have been brought up with technology, are more than comfortable using it and likely find social network concepts more intuitive and faster than email counterparts. The article by Digital Trends is a fantastic piece with some fantastic insights and I generally agree with much of what Geoff Duncan says but I struggle to match his conclusion on the future of email because I don't believe the benefit of simplicity outweighs it's weaknesses and limitations.
We've established that email is slower than social media but it's weakness also lays in lost potential. Where email really begins to fall down in comparison to social media is the potential knowledge exchange that is lost through parties that are not part of the To:, CC:, or BCC:, fields. Non recipients are likely excluded because it is believed that is of no relevance to them in an attempt to spare their inbox additional clutter without considering the contribution that may have. I am not advocating the entire company's mailing list should be recipients of every email but that there are better, more accessible ways of sharing. At this year's Institute of Directors conference in London Dan Cobley, the MD of Google UK & Ireland made an interesting revelation about one of Google's ways of facilitating informal knowledge transfer. At Google, lines in the cafeteria are intentionally kept long “because we know people will chat while they’re waiting. Chats become ideas, and ideas become projects”. Think of all the times you've become engaged by a post or link on Facebook or Twitter that someone may have not shared directly with you. Enterprise social networks facilitate these sorts of interactions and connections. One of the ways Atos describes it (which I really love) is that it caters for a different type of culture that promotes communities over silos. By opening up new channels of communication you pave the way for innovation and new relationships between employees who are fundamentally the driving force behind any business.
And where else does email lack behind new options? File sharing. The concept of sending a word document, editing, saving, attaching and replying is archaic (and this is coming from a Classics student). Collaboration on a document is easily done with tools such as Google Docs where changes can be tracked and viewed. The shift of information to the cloud is happening and integration with an enterprise social network is the logical step. Facebook allows you to view Excel and Word documents in the browser. Surely the future is this - where there are no limitations to sharing because of a users operating system or devise.
Perhaps my excitement for the potential of Enterprise Social Networks is fuelled partly because I have already witness the benefits it can have on a business. At 256, the student bar I worked at while attending University, much of the communication was conducted through a closed staff Facebook group. The management team posted electronic versions of the schedule, the results of sales competitions and incentives and were able to push important bulletins of information. It also allowed Managers and Supervisors to quickly find additional staff or cover in response to unexpected events or staff illnesses. It would not have been as fast, practical through calls, SMS or emails. Staff were also able to participate in conversations about social gatherings, provide input into scheduled nights and request shift swaps. The group worked well because the bar employed mainly students and everyone on the team had a Facebook account. Secondly, the group was a relatively informal environment and acted also as a place to share funny stories, photos and antics and generally added to the close culture that existed in the bar. I don't sit here and preach that this implementation can scale or be applied to every business but there is definite potential in exploiting technology and social networks in a slightly different way for the benefit of the business.
Atos seems to be proving initial critics wrong and posting successes with the new policy and I, along with many others will be keenly watching their progress. If you further insight from about Enterprise Social Networks the FTs Paul Taylor hosted an insightful interview with the Kendall Collins from chatter that discusses a lot of the potential of Enterprise Social Networks. I am becoming more and more convinced about Social Networks place in the future of businesses and look forward to seeing the impact it will have.