Social Collaboration: Talking Your Way Out Of Problems
Wes Simonds 120000EFD6 firstname.lastname@example.org | | Tags:  death business louis software lotusphere jacques e-mail ibm social-collaboration capabilities richardson 2012 pavlenyi social connect
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The reports of e-mail's death are greatly exaggerated. As a close observer of IT strategies for quite a while now, I sometimes find myself classifying them into three groups.
Walking through the woods, you never step into a bear trap.
2. Not As Smart, But OK-That'll-Work Strategies
Walking through the woods, you step into a bear trap. Then, to escape, you cut off your foot.
3. Really Unwise Strategies
Walking through the woods, you step into a bear trap. Then, to escape, you cut off your head.
Recently, reading through the daily IT news, I discovered an example of a strategy I would probably classify in the third group.
It seems there's an IT services company in Europe that has decided to abolish internal e-mail, claiming that only 10 percent of it is useful anyway. This organization's plan is, instead, to migrate within 18 months to the exclusive use of instant messaging and Facebook-style wall posts.
Well, I can understand the frustration at work here -- the e-mail tsunami most of us confront daily is a real problem that demands real solutions -- but I think tossing e-mail onto the scrapheap may be a bit of an overreaction. The reality is that e-mail is, and will continue to be, very important at this IT services provider and practically all other organizations.
Even if you decide to move to alternate communications platforms, you can't make the rest of the world do so, too. You'll still need your people to read and reply to e-mail from customers, business partners, etc., outside the organization. And if you're going to preserve e-mail for external purposes, you might as well leverage it for internal purposes, too -- albeit in ways that make good sense.
Is the problem really with your tool? Or how your organization uses (and misuses) it?
What do I mean by ‘good sense?’ One way to look at this is in terms of best vs. worst e-mail prac-tices. Most organizations I've encountered don't even have best e-mail practices; instead, people just wing it. This is a major opportunity to improve.
For instance: If you want to get more value from e-mail, encourage people to think very carefully about functions like ‘reply to all’ that inevitably lead to a giant proliferation of unwanted and use-less e-mail. Taking five seconds to edit the cc line will deliver a world of improvement.
The same idea applies to ‘FYI’ e-mails, which might or might not be of interest. In cases like that, a blog post (which can be read voluntarily by interested parties) is a better platform than e-mail sent to a mass audience, which didn’t consent to receiving it.
Also helpful is encouraging people to edit e-mails instead of simply leaving them totally intact and typing a comment at the top. If only two lines of a 1,000-line e-mail chain are relevant, employees can and should delete the other 998 lines, and then type their own contribution, before hitting the Send button.
These three behavioral changes alone, trivial though they may seem, can make a tremendous difference.
There’s also the question of what e-mail does well, and other collaboration platforms don’t, such as private communication. Do you really want your boss posting your annual evaluation on your Facebook-like wall? Granted, your boss can jump through various hoops to approximate privacy with such platforms, but it’s clumsier than it should be.
Finally, there’s integration potential. As your social collaboration strategy expands to incorporate new platforms, such as the aforementioned instant messaging and Wall platforms, you may find that e-mail can also integrate with them in natural ways, thus multiplying the total business value it generates.
Add new communications platforms to address new needs
Admittedly, social collaboration for business purposes, though a fascinating topic to me, isn't really my area of expertise. So I thought I'd run these and related ideas by a couple of guys who are experts: Jacques Pavlenyi, Market Segment Manager for IBM Collaboration Solutions, and Louis Richardson, Social Business Evangelist for IBM.
My take on best/worst practices being critical for e-mail value seemed confirmed right away.
‘E-mail doesn't kill productivity,’ said Richardson. ‘People kill productivity. They just use e-mail to do it.’
So, in other words, it's not just the hammer; it's also the carpenter. If you want to build a better communications experience for your team, focus on team behavior as well as the tools they're using.
The conversation also soon turned to related topics -- such as the fact that new issues of transparency, and time to value, really are driving a fundamentally new approach to how ideas move through (and evolve inside) the organization.
In large part, that's because e-mail is, by its nature, mainly intended to foster discussions inside a specific group of people. It's not designed for widespread perusal by all people.
So ideas that come up in e-mail aren't read by, and don't benefit, a larger audience unless some secondary action like forwarding comes into play. And while that might happen, it's slower and clumsier than if the larger audience could see the ideas directly and immediately. Transparency, in short, is just not what e-mail is all about; it's not the best available tool for that purpose.
This is where the Wall concept -- rendered as ‘profile boards’ by an IBM solution called IBM Connections, and used routinely inside IBM -- has tremendous appeal.
‘Recently, a guy asked a technical question on my profile board,’ said Richardson. ‘I'm not a soft-ware engineer, so I didn't know the answer. But before I could even see the question, somebody else did, who did know. And he answered it. So the first guy got his question answered really, really fast. When I asked him why he posted it on my board, he basically said he knew that would happen. He decided to ask loud enough that people would see it and answer it. And it worked.’
That's a pretty compelling example as is, but let's explore it a little more.
You can see right away how profile boards and e-mail could integrate well in such a case. Sup-pose the answer had turned out to be too long and complex for a simple profile reply. If so, the guy with the answer could simply e-mail it to the guy with the question, having initially used Richardson's profile to discover each other.
Berlitz Corporation, the Japanese-owned provider of language services, also used social net-working and profile boards to leverage intellectual capital and employee expertise among its staff of nearly 12,000 instructors and employees at more than 550 centers in over 75 countries. For some time, the company operated separate internal websites for each geographic location -- Asia, Europe and the Americas -- which did not allow employees to share knowledge easily across the globe.
To enable faster communication and collaboration across the entire global workforce, the com-pany created an enterprise-wide intranet called SPACE (Smart Place to Accelerate Community of Excellence), and incorporated profiles to help employees quickly find and interact with colleagues who have a specific expertise, background or skill set for answers to questions, consultation or project staffing. Social networking and collaboration, including the use of wikis, blogs and instant messaging, transformed this once regional operation into an agile, global one that can more easily share successful strategies and educational content across its global centers.
When you integrate platforms, you multiply their business value
Furthermore, to my mind, this example hints at a larger concept: that different communications platforms, while they naturally serve different purposes, should combine in many ways to create different forms of value. It's not really about one tool or platform replacing another; it's about choosing the best tools for a given purpose, and linking tools to help information flow as usefully as possible among them.
When you do that, you've not just improved communication -- you've embraced what IBM calls ‘social business.’ You've literally made your organization more social through the use of technology.
In the course of writing these blogs entries, I have always been fond of analogies. So here's my homemade analogy for this idea.
Consider natural language; it's formed of parts of speech, like nouns and verbs and adjectives. They each have particular functions. If you want to refer to a refrigerator, you're going to need a noun. If you want to talk about moving a refrigerator, you're going to need a verb.
But the real magic happens when you combine parts of speech to express more complex abstract concepts: ‘Don't drag the refrigerator over the hardwood floors in the dining room or my wife will throw a fit.’
Similarly, social collaboration platforms used in business -- like e-mail, like profile boards, like instant messaging -- can be, and should be, combined logically to achieve the most powerful communication.
Getting rid of one particular platform, such as e-mail, is probably not your best bet, any more than getting rid of nouns or verbs would really improve the English language. You want to combine it with the others and use them all wherever they make sense, based on your needs, to achieve your target results.
Or, as Pavlenyi puts it on his own blog :
’From all the data and discussions and feedback I've seen, one of the keys to e-mail's future is integrating it with other, more social, capabilities. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that this in-tegration is critical to making a successful social business transformation.’
What’s your viewpoint on e-mail and social collaboration?
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About the author
Guest blogger Wes Simonds worked in IT for seven years before becoming a technology writer on topics including virtualization, cloud computing and service management. He lives in sunny Austin, Texas and believes Mexican food should always be served with queso.