Using Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) to reach mobile workers

While email remains the dominant internal communication tool, 40% of workers don't need it for their job. Could Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) fill the gap?

While email remains the dominant internal communication tool, 40% of workers don’t need it for their job. Could Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) fill the gap?

This is the third 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 white paper here.

According to The Radicati Group“Email remains the go-to form of communication in the Business world. In 2013, business email accounts total 929 million mailboxes. This figure is expected grow at an average annual growth rate of about 5% over the next four years, and reach over 1.1 billion by the end of 2017.”

The same report reveals that over 100 billion emails are sent every day, the majority of them business-related, and that there is particularly fast take-up among mobile email users, the numbers of which increased by 28% to 897 million 2014.

During our recent webinar we wanted to check if our audience (of mainly communication managers) was still using email to this extent, so we launched a poll, asking: “which communication tools do you use every hour at work?” The result was unequivocal and unsurprising (see below): email was used by almost 100% of our viewers every hour of every day, with phone a distant second on 43% followed by chat (23%), then ESN and Intranet/Wiki both, on 20%.

Hourly comms usage

So how did we get into this state of email dominance?

“I think a significant element is the fact that it was the first online communication tool we had. Fundamentally, email is what instigated the use of PCs within organization. It was the first online communication tool that really worked”, says Angela Ashenden of MWD Advisors. Take up was also boosted by its rapid ubiquity: “Everybody was on email, so you didn’t need to know whether or not they were using the new tool in order to communicate with them”.

Email also offered certain special qualities that other online communication tools, such as intranets and forums, didn’t. “Email is not just an internal communication platform”, Angela explains, “it is not just about communicating with your colleagues. It’s about communicating with anyone that you work with, your business partners, your customers…whoever it might be. It doesn’t matter which tool you use. You can communicate with other people using different email platforms… and that’s extremely powerful.”

Clearly, then, when it arrived on the scene in the mid 1990’s email had an immediate impact on businesses that was bound to attract supporters. But why, when it became apparent that email also had significant negative qualities, didn’t organisations take a step back and reconsider their communication strategies? As I asked our panellists in the webinar – was there ever a point at which we missed an opportunity to re-evaluate email?

Richard Hughes was clear in his perspective: “I think we did. A couple of years ago, there was a great deal of enthusiasm around the idea of enterprise social networking, the so called ‘Facebook for business’. I think that organizations and vendors both missed an opportunity at that time in that they underestimated how wedded people were to the way we’re all currently working. That kind of collaborative approach is not so much in the news now.”

Angela Ashenden agreed: “we’ve had discussion forums for years. We’ve had instant messaging for years. And yet, they’ve not significantly impacted on our use of email. In some organizations, instant messaging is used very heavily, but it’s not really taken off in the way that you might expect. I think a lot of that is down to the fact that critical mass is key.”

This raises the suggestion that because email was the first digital communication tool to achieve a critical mass of usage, it is, to an extent, preventing other communication forms from reaching that point. “Although other tools have come and gone over the years”, says Richard Hughes, “email has continued to be the central force from an online business communication perspective”. Adding that, as a result of this, “you have to incorporate email into any transition to another tool because most people are there. You need to encourage them away from it, but not assume that they’re going to want to leave it.”

There is also, of course, the argument that no other digital communication tools come close to meeting our demands for speed, utility, ease of use and ubiquity.

As Angela Ashenden says:I don’t think it’s that we’ve missed an opportunity. It’s more that other technologies don’t lend themselves so well to universal communication. For example, instant messaging is great for short, real-time chat, but it’s not good for asynchronous communication. Discussion forums are fine only if you know where the discussion is taking place. So there are limitations to the tools that came along. It probably just seemed easier with email.”

And yet some people say the opportunity to implement a radically different communication strategy remains on the table. “We make the assumption that everybody is on email, but that simply isn’t true”, says Belinda Gannaway, Consultant at Nixon McInnes. “Many people in work today are not on email. So when we talk about the new social tools coming it, it’s not as a replacement to email; often it’s the first opportunity for them to connect with colleagues”.

The numbers back this up. While six out of ten working Americans say that email is “very important” to their work, that still leaves 40% of working people who either don’t have email or could do their jobs without it. As Belinda says, “even within a global bank, for example, an awful lot of people on the front desk, providing direct services to customers, aren’t on email.”

Perhaps reaching out to these employees, who aren’t already wedded to email and who are likely to be more mobile-oriented and less desk-bound, offers the best opportunity for organisations to implement new, more efficient and collaborative communications strategies.

We’ll be exploring this opportunity for organisations to implement innovative new collaborative strategies in our next post. To read it now, download the white paper or listen to the recording of the webinar discussion on which this series was based.

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