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Email bankruptcy and internal social networking

You have probably been there a few times already: after a one-week vacation or a short business trip, you come back to the office and suddenly 1,000 unread emails are waiting for you in your inbox. And, as you likely promised in your out-of-office message to get back to people emailing you “as soon as possible” upon your return, you just find yourself in that now more-familiar-than-we-dare-to-admit territory of email bankruptcy. You feel guilty that you are not keeping up your word, but the email stream fire hose is oblivious to that: more keeps coming your way, and at some point you just wonder if the email nightmare will ever go away.

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Then, you hear about this new social business initiative going on at your company, which promises to end all maladies of Dilbert’s world: work will be meaningful and rewarding again, communications and collaboration will just work as they were supposed to. And then you wonder: am I going to finally be free of the email jail, and have time to do real work? As you probably learned to expect from my blog posts, the answer once again is “well, yes AND no”. But don’t give up on it yet: if your organization does it correctly, your will be better off than you are now.

The first trap in the question in bold above is: what do you mean by “real work”? Many of us are now labeled “knowledge workers,” a euphemism indicating that we no longer get food on our tables “by the sweat of our brow”–the soft skin in the palm of our hands can attest to that. If you spend most of your working day on your computer or mobile device screen, chances are that the fruit of your labor is not made of atoms like a car, a piece of clothing, or a building. It’s rather intangible, consisting of moving information around and building on top of it. So, if you don’t count yourself as a laborer, what is your real work?

Sorry to break the news to you, but your real work may actually be, among other things, processing your email inbox. That, and also creating presentations, word processing documents, spreadsheets, the whole Office Suite she-bang, all artifacts attempting to render what your knowledge is. If you really are a knowledge worker, you are building something that is commonly manifested in terms of digital communications.

When you dream about that world without emails, maybe you are putting your hopes–or your wrath–where they should not be. Email is not intrinsically good or bad. I would actually argue that email has one big advantage: for most of us, it’s the single hub where we go to do our work, so we don’t need to follow 10 different streams of conversation in different channels.

That’s not to say that email is good either. One of the limitations of email is that it evolved very little from the original electronic mail systems from the 1960’s and 1970’s. It still pretty much do what the old Unix command line used to give you 40 years ago:

“echo “Some message” | mail -s “meeting today” somebody@example.com -c somebodyelse@example.com”

Trying to address all your digital communications needs with email is like trying to cook and consume a 10-course meal using just a fork. A fork is very good for some things, but is not sufficient to handle the complexity of a banquet. And the streams of knowledge coming your way for processing today are much closer to a banquet than a quick microwave meal.

In its essence, email is a deterministic and asynchronous peer-to-peer digital communication tool, and it excels at doing that. However, modern communication follow several other patterns. In terms of vectors, you need tools that can expand more efficiently from the one-to-one model to one-to-many, many-to-one, many-to-many and one-to-whoever. Because email is peer-to-peer in nature, we frequently see email threads percolating unevenly throughout the various branches of “to”s, “cc”s and “bcc”s, with no single person being aware of everything that was said, or of everyone who participated in the conversation.

You need tools that are probabilistic in nature too: the sheer volume of information we need to process nowadays just means that deterministic tools often can’t scale enough. Trying to process mountains of knowledge solely with email is similar to the original Yahoo! search “guide to the World Wide Web” approach, that paid people to manually catalog the Internet. It’s just not a sustainable strategy. Today, you need Google search more than you need Yellow Pages, Wikipedia more than Britannica.

Internal Social Business platforms enable you to diversify your communications and collaboration toolset, via status updates, microblogging, “walls”, online profiles, blogs, wikis, online document collaboration, and socially-influenced search, mimicking patterns established in the consumer internet by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Google, and going one step beyond: integrating all those into a cohesive platform, and providing hooks to other enterprise applications.

But what Social Business giveth, Social Business taketh away: as channels proliferate, your communication strategy of relying on a single hub–your email client–no longer holds water. Now, you may feel the pressure of having to go to two or more different places to handle your communication streams. Even if the promise of getting less emails were fulfilled by the adoption of Social Business platforms, you might still feel that you are not better off because of that, as you just shifted part of your “real work” from one medium to the other.

However, two points are missed in that assessment. First, even though you may feel like you just shifted channels, in reality your communications over the social business platform has a wider reach, is persistent and reusable. Over time, you will not need to answer the same question over and over again, and you will find what happened to that conversation thread that you briefly participated of, without having to call or meet with somebody: it’s there, digitized and available to you and others in your department or project to find. Second, Social Business platforms themselves are evolving and will eventually converge with your email client, so that you can still rely on a single hub to manage your communications, no matter if that single hub is your Outlook or Lotus Notes client, a mobile app in your phone or tablet, or a web site you access via a regular browser. From a single place, you will be able to access your email, calendars, feeds and activity streams.

A few years from now, you may still be using something that looks pretty much like your email client, and still spend most of your office hours on it. However, if we do it correctly, behind the scenes, the communication patterns behind it will be much richer and far reaching than what you do with email today. By incorporating Social Business patterns to your communications toolset, “real work” will be done much more efficiently than you do today, but you may not even notice it, and that is a good thing. After all, really sophisticated technology is typically invisible to the end user.

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Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

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