E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Can Social Tools Really Replace Email? – They Already Are! (Part I)

Continuing further with the nice momentum of the large number of reactions that the recent article I published in the NYTimes, I Freed Myself From E-Mail’s Grip, has been creating over the last few days I thought I would touch base today on one of the blog posts, and its extended commentary, that I have enjoyed the most from the perspective of touching basis on a series of items I have been dealing with over the last few months as well. Yes, I am talking about the really nice blog post put together by Kevin Purdy at Lifehacker titled "[Ask the readers] Can Social Tools Really Replace Email?".

The article itself questions whether social tools are ready to replace e-mail or not and comes to some very interesting conclusions that I thought I would touch base on. Those final thoughts are actually not coming up from Kevin alone, but by the Lifehacker readers and while going through them I just couldn’t help thinking how hard I have hit the nerve with this particular topic. I tell you, every day I am more convinced that this blog is going to shift gears into becoming "Thinking out of the Inbox".

Anyway, what I would like to do in this blog post is to comment on a couple of items Kevin mentions as well as some of the comments folks have been leaving behind debating whether they could give up on corporate e-mail or not. Rather fascinating read, indeed, as most of the issues they indicate are issues I faced myself way at the beginning, but five months onwards, none of them are still lingering around…

Thus ready? Here we go:

"Assuming you could convince your superiors to install the needed tools and let you give it a try, could you see yourself benefiting from internal social networking instead of endless email replies?"

This is quite an interesting and provocative question from Kevin. One that I was doubtful about providing an answer many many years ago, but not today. Convincing my superiors to install the needed tools? Hummm, not sure what you would think about this one folks, but I doubt most knowledge workers would care about this any longer. Unless the information & knowledge shared may well be of a confidential nature to the business, I doubt they would care to share the rest inside the corporate firewall. On the contrary, even if their superiors are not very much in favour of providing the tools, people are still going out there and use other social tools, anyway!

Although I will comment on that blog post at a later time as well, Steve Rubel has put it quite nicely in a recent blog post when talking about Independent’s Day: Digital Nomads Rising. Go and have a read and you will know what I mean. In short, with the massively rampant innovation going on at the moment out there in the consumer space, knowledge workers have got plenty more opportunities and choices to share what they know with others using social tools outside of the company’s firewall that not long ago didn’t even exist. Yet, today, they are all over the place, rather pervasive and waiting for everyone to chime in, which brings in another interesting question with regards to Intellectual Capital and Intellectual Property rights, but that would be the subject for another blog post at some point in time. Still I am not sure that knowledge workers would need to convince their superiors to have those social tools in place. They will not care much, they will just do it. It’s already happening and big time!

Moving on forward, I am just going to focus now on a few of the comments that were shared on that particular blog post and which I think are rather an indication of the kind of challenge we are all facing, if we would want to adopt Enterprise 2.0 social tools beyond just the pilot or trial out phases. There are plenty of them, so will try to keep my comments short …

E-mail as single point of entry vs. social networking tools, scattered all over the place

Contrary to what most people seem to think, you, too, can have that single point of entry experience when making use of social networking tools. Yes, something that I have already talked about extensively and which I feel has been rather underutilised for the last few years: your RSS / Atom feed reader(s)! As simple as that! Oh, and don’t worry, it is not another in-box! It is actually an application that advises you there is new / updated content out there in your most favourite online social spaces where you usually hang out, waiting for it to be digested or contribute once again! Or not!! (You decide)

– Knowledge workers tend to check e-mail more regularly than blog comments, wiki updates, etc.

This particular comment that came up a couple of times is a clear indication of the kind of addiction we all seem to have with corporate e-mail. It’s the first thing we check when we wake up (Not even when we go to the office!); the first thing we check right after lunch; the last thing we check before we leave the office; it’s the first thing we check after we have had dinner, put the kids to bed, checked there isn’t anything interesting on T.V. and off we go again! To check our e-mail. Not sure what you folks would think about this or not, but that, to me, is an addiction. I broke with it five months ago and I can surely tell you it feels great! How about you? Are you ready to break that addiction yourself?

One other thing as well that I keep telling folks who keep asking about it. I think it is also about time that people understand that you don’t need to constantly be checking out resources, tools, whatever, to see what things have been added or updated. Only thing that will create is lot of stress that you may be missing key, crucial, important information. Don’t worry. You are not! And if you are, you will find out about it just when you need it. Always on time! (And in another blog post I will explain why and how this happens…)

– E-Mail transitioning more and more into real-time collaboration with other knowledge workers

This is something that I saw myself from the very first beginning that I started moving away from corporate e-mail. I already hinted it in yesterday’s blog post: Instant Messaging has become my number #1 tool to handle social interactions, whether business or personal related. Why? More than anything else because of the immediacy. Something that I learned as well while doing this experiment in the first few weeks and something that you may not realise about just yet.

Every time you read an e-mail coming through to you, I can guarantee you that, within the first 15 seconds after you finish reading it, you already know whether you can help out or not, or whether you know the answer to the query or where to find the information or not. Yes, just within those first 15 seconds! So why not helping that other fellow colleague right away starting a chat and right away engaging in the conversation. There is a great chance that by doing so, you are helping your colleagues much faster and much more efficiently (No lingering e-mails lagging behind day after day, just because you are too busy) and at the same time next time they may need your help you are already telling them how you are much more responsive and which tool(s) to use for that. One less e-mail coming your way next time!

– Social networking tools are just being used very much as personal / fun social tools still

To my surprise, while going through the different comments from the Lifehacker article, I noticed how most folks seem to think that social networking tools are still very much dealing with the personal / private side of knowledge workers. Yes, the fun part of the Web. And therefore cannot see the immediate business benefit from making use of them within the corporate world. Well, to me, it is all about how your re-purpose yourself in making use of those tools.

Here is an example. Inside IBM you all have heard how we have got one social networking site called Beehive, where people tend to share pictures, create lists (Hive5s), events, etc. etc. all channeled through people’s profiles. A good chunk of it all done for the fun of it. Well, to me, Beehive is my second most preferred social software tool inside IBM for a couple of reasons:

1. It allows me to interact with fellow colleagues offline by dropping quick messages into people’s profiles, thus no need to send an e-mail when they are not online and
2. It allows me tremendously to work harder on my social capital skills to get to know the folks I collaborate and exchange knowledge with much better. Why? Because I am not just interested in their technical, management or business skills alone. I am mostly interested in each of them as persons, as individuals, who also bring to work their personal life, because it is an integral part of them, and somehow I feel I have now got a choice to become part of that as well or not, whether I engage in those social tools or not.

(Social capital has been, perhaps, one of the areas from KM most undermined and undervalued for quite some time, when we all know it is one of the key fundamental success factors from any kind of collaboration and knowledge sharing! Why? Because of the trust that it enables and empowers amongst knowledge workers!)

Thus who said that social networking tools are only being use for fun & play? And even then, what’s wrong with that? Have we forgotten how we all got to learn the most important things in our lives when we were young (And play was a core skill of ours)? A lot younger? I seriously (Pun intended) hope not!

– E-Mail still preferred over social networking tools, because it’s hard to keep up their initial momentum

Collaboration, we all know, is all about people, about getting people together to collaboratively work on achieving a specific task. However, we all know that (social) tools also play an important role as enablers to help ease or enhance that collaboration. However, no one can expect that collaboration will happen overnight with these tools if people are not well prepared!

I am sure that plenty of folks out there would agree with me how one of the main issues corporations seem to be facing at the moment is how people, knowledge workers, just don’t know how to collaborate, how to share their knowledge with other peers, because they have never been taught. And since you have never been taught you tend to revert to the easy way out, i.e. the lowest common denominator: e-mail!

This is one of the things we would need to start taking more and more seriously and never take for granted that people may, or may not, know how to make use of collaborative, knowledge sharing or social networking tools. Putting together a wiki and expecting everyone to contribute is not going to be very helpful, nor very successful.

We need to nurture the co-creation of activities within a wiki, for instance, with the proper education, facilitation, training, coaching, shadowing, whatever, in order to help knowledge workers become more productive making use of these new social tools. Walking them hand in hand extensively, till they become self-sufficient is key! No wonder people give up on these tools almost right at the beginning. Of course, if you don’t show them the way and you walk it along with them, they will not change their habits, they will not consider moving on from those tools they are already comfortable with. This, to me, is key for the successful adoption of social software within the enterprise to help move away from corporate e-mail: education, facilitation, training & support on how to best make use of these social tools with the least effort possible. Yes, the lowest barrier of entry! That’s when we will see a massive reduction in the number of e-mails exchanged. For sure!

– Social Software will never replace e-mail

This was the final trend of thought from the various commenters on the Lifehacker’s blog post and I must say that I can certainly agree with it. If you have been reading this blog for a little while longer, you will know that I have never said that e-mail will die or that social software will eventually take over e-mail for good. What is actually going to happen is how social software and social networking tools are going to help us all re-purpose the way we use e-mail at the moment. It will still be used, but in my own case, only for one specific set of interactions: those one-on-one private conversations of a confidential or sensitive nature that I keep talking all along. The rest of the conversations are going to go out in the public, open spaces where collaboration happens in a transparent way, with half the effort, because everyone is contributing and doing their job (And not me doing everything!) & much faster results than just getting the job done through e-mail. But not to worry, this is something that I will be expanding further on as well as time goes by…

And that was it! Those were some of the various thoughts that came out from the Lifehacker readers who took their time to share their thoughts on why social tools may (Or may not) replace e-mail. There have been four other commenters though with some more specific items that I thought I would touch base on in another blog post as they present some rather unique views on why they would never give up on e-mail and why after reading them I feel they should! Thus stay tuned for Part II! 🙂

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  1. Its seems there is an untapping of potential in this inquiry of Thinking out of the inbox. I am following carefully looking for the gems that will lead to process, tools and practices. I am not interested in who resonates with the possibility as much as those unfolding the practice, documenting and sharing. If we succeed others will follow.

    My context is much different. I am not inside a corporation. I am a social entrepreneur. Because of my ground of work in collective intelligence my relationships are very much in the collaboration space. My current projects demand working with wide circles. I have questions that may apply to the corporate realm as well like…how to work with hierachies? not power ones but relationship ones. Like collaborators versus followers(concentric circles). How do you get to people who are only email based? How much more efficient in building relationships while reducing time can one be via socialmedia?

    Distributed relationship. In my own practice I began with moving all I can to RSS, writting to some people about this inquiry and seeing the reactions, using an audio tool to reply fast and easy, being mindful to communication versus collaboration for being able to tap into other tools and searching for a video conversational tool. Lets see what unfolds. Gracias por tu búsqueda y trabajo Luis.

  2. Amen to the importance of social capital. Build the relationship, get to know people a little and the “strictly business” part will take care of itself. Spending some resources on the affective part of trust is smart business.
    Some research references are on my web site but an entertaining summary is the June 2005 Harvard Business Review article by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the formation of Social Networks.”

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