In this post we ask three crucial internal communications questions: Can email be fixed? What are the social media alternatives to email? And can they, in turn, be fixed?
This is the fourth in our series of posts taken from our recent white paper The Future of Business Communications: Moving Beyond Email. You can read the previous post here or download the full paper here.
In our previous posts we have explored the reasons for email’s ascendance within internal communications, as well as the positive and negative ramifications of its dominance. We have also identified opportunities – especially among non-email using staff and mobile workers – where alternative communication tools such as Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) could gain traction.
But before we delve further into the alternatives, isn’t there a simpler option? Why don’t we just fix email?
As Richard Hughes highlighted earlier in our discussion, email is great for sending short, important messages that need to be read, but when people use it for long discussions or collaborating on documents, it becomes unwieldy. Surely then, a set of clear rules and agreed practices, combined with alternative tools for collaboration and document sharing will be enough to reduce time-wastage and increase productivity?
There are also many other alternative tools and techniques to help employees towards achieving ‘Inbox Zero’, from smart inboxes, which filter your emails for you, to sophisticated email threading and filtering options. Perhaps the simplest solution is to control how and when you read your emails. As Belinda Gannaway of Nixon McInnes said in response to our live poll results: “if you could switch off the ‘send and receive’ function, or just separate out the two of them, would we still see the high level of email usage every hour?”
There is always, of course, the option of getting up and speaking to a colleague in person. Many business emails are undoubtedly sent to people in the same building as the sender. Given that many emails initiate an exchange that continues for days, a quick face-to-face conversation or phone-call may well have been the best option.
But even if your organisation manages to implement a set of rules and techniques for better email management or more productive face-to-face meetings, there will still be a need for additional tools to fill the gaps. Employees still need to be able to communicate instantly, collaborate virtually, store documents and share knowledge.
Many employees are, in fact, already starting to use social tools and apps without the approval or oversight of their employer, leading to fragmented working practices and increased security risks (especially in relation to mobile communications).
So what are your options?
Richard Hughes of BroadVision, which has developed successful ESNs for some of the world’s largest companies, divides the alternatives to email into three categories:
- “Firstly, there are those who are trying to reinvent email by layering extra intelligence on top of it. It might look cool and it might be nice to slide messages away, but ultimately, it’s rearranging the proverbial deckchairs.”
- Then there are companies that are trying to simplify it down to just straight messaging: the ‘Whatsapps’ of this world. This quick and simple approach is most suitable for consumers.
- Lastly, there are organisations, like BroadVision, that are looking at collaboration and communication as a much bigger thing. Where the lens is more towards wikis and Enterprise Social Networks. This is the most suitable option for businesses that need the complete communication suite.
For most large organisations, Richard’s last category is proving the most practical solution to their needs, but it’s also the most complex. ESNs comprise a range of communication features, such as status updates, newsfeeds, chat and instant messaging with collaborative tools, including groups, blogs and wikis. They are designed to be as versatile as email, so are modular in nature, but with best-of-breed features for each specific purpose.
The vision that ESNs can facilitate staff interaction without the need for interruptive or wasteful communication holds great appeal for large organisations. As long ago as 2012 McKinsey was estimating that the productivity gains of implementing enterprise social technologies could contribute between $900 billion and $1.3 trillion in annual value to the US economy.
And they are proving extremely popular. In 2012 Deloitte predicted that by the end of 2013, 90% of Fortune 500 companies would have partially or fully implemented an ESN. We don’t know if that figure was achieved, but based on the multitude of ESN case studies now available online, it seems highly likely that it has been by now.
To a great extent our snap poll results (see previous post) echo this move towards ESNs. “Given how much we’re dependent on email”, says Angela Ashenden of MWD Advisors, “I think it’s fascinating that social networks and chat are not far behind the phone in terms of how much we use them.” She also raised the idea that ‘phone’, as listed in our poll options, might not mean voice-calls. “They may be texting, using WhatsApp or any number of other social applications.”
Beyond the complexity of selecting the most appropriate modules, apps, features or tools to create your ESN, there are challenges relating to access. Initially designed for internal collaboration only, many networks end up allowing at least partial access to third party suppliers or customers or integrating with external-facing knowledge bases.
The most frequent example of this occurs in customer service, where a phone-line, email or live chat may facilitate adequate communication, but a forum or knowledge-base where customers can ask questions, read previous answers and help each other is likely to provide a more effective, collaborative solution.
So, how do you get customers to understand that visiting a forum is better than making a phone-call or sending an email? Angela Ashenden recommends a gradual process of introduction whereby every call or email ends with referral to where they could have found the answer on the forum. When it’s made clear that it’s a quicker route to the answer, most people learn to shortcut inefficient processes.
Whilst implementing an ESN, training staff and encouraging customers and suppliers to use your new social technologies may make business sense, almost all organisations experience cultural resistance to change, and at all levels.
Suggestions that social media is part of an efficiency problem, rather than a solution, persist.
According to the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 48% of employees who use social media for work still say it leads to information overload. To compound this the annual ‘time-wasting at work’ survey from Salary.com in 2014 featured Facebook and LinkedIn among the top three time-wasting.
That some business leaders still confuse enterprise social networking, i.e. the use of internal business collaboration tools, with social networking, i.e. using public social networks to connect with friends, suggests that education at all levels of an organisation remains a key factor in planning an ESN activities of employees, fuelling the commonly aired board room sentiment that ‘social media equals time-wasting’.
There is also negativity towards social media on the ‘shop floor’. After years of suffering, in many cases, badly designed Intranets and bungled ESN projects, it is perhaps understandable that when surveyed many employees are sceptical about the real value of enterprise social technologies. Just 18% of employees believe social media is important in the workplace” while 49% think it isn’t.
While ESNs have the potential to deliver dramatic improvements in communication, it’s clear that any organisation planning to implement a social communication strategy will still need to overcome many technical, practical and cultural challenges before it can achieve lasting benefits.