Email vs social networks : it’s about the client, not the signal


In brief : wondering if there’s any reason to use a social network for a private conversation implies that having many tools coexisting is a given, a constraint. But it’s not. The given is the need to manage many forms of interactions and the question should rather be about why using different tools for a single need.

I recently wrote that the debate on social vs non social tools was futile. This very practical post by Samuel Driessen gives me the occasion to illustrate the theory with examples.

To make the story short, he was trying to have a private conversation with Luis Suarez, who is known for being reachable by any means but email. At the end, since they needed to exchange documents, the conversation ended on Google +, which is, in my opinion, the best tool for such needs.

In the end Samuel asks a very senseful question, one from those that one day or the other gnaws at any person that should choose between two tools competing for a single need : is there any way to use social tools for private one-to-one conversations.

Does bringing email into enterprise social networks make sense ?

As a matter of fact one may think that there’s only one good use case for email that should be precisely this one.

But what’s an email ? A signal that carries an interaction. Like a message or a comment on a social network. What’s different is the nature of the interaction : one to one, one to many, many to many. But in the end it’s only and nothing more than a signal. The problem is that we tie the signal to the tool we use to manage it : the email client or the social network.

A social platform is very versatile and allows to to deal with any kind of signal in a rather effective way. Email clients are more effective for one-to-one or or one-to-few interactions and quickly gets mixed up when one tries to do something else, or make the conversation faster or more intense. But that’s only tools. Behind the email vs. social network debate the discussion often moves to comparing the tools in which we manage signals, not to discuss the nature of signals, what’s something people don’t care about.

In the end, and that’s what matters from an user standpoint, we need to stop having the wrong debate. We need to stop talking about signals, what’s futile, to fixe once for all the client problem. Because that’s where the question lies : end users have to change tools depending on the way they want to manage a signal. What makes no sense.

Users don’t care about tools, they want to centralize their activities

From a rational and logical standpoint, we have two goals : made as many kind of interactions possible and reduce the number of tools supporting them until we end with a single one. As a matter of fact, what prevent people from socializing their practices and conversations is not only caused by cultural issues but also by the need to change tools as they need a different kind of interaction. This is all the more problematic since a conversation can start with two people but end with several depending on the matter and the need. What implies moving to another tool during the conversation and event transfer the conversation history to the new tool.

In short, the multiplication of tools and the historical importance of email weights on the center of gravity of the work environment. And adopting new ways to interact implies this center of gravity moves to other tools or that the capabilities of old ones are improved in order to make able to successfully handle many interaction models.

So I’ll rewrite Samuel’s question in other words. Rather than wondering if one-to-one conversations in a social network makes sense, I rather wonder if having many tools coexisting makes sense.

Anyway, like it or not, this is an evolution in progress and it seems to me that it’s much more important to deal with it than to debate on the benefits of social vs email.

Last year, when IBM introduced Connections 4 and Notes “Social Edition”, the many functionalities shared by both tools made me think that in a near future, maybe in less than 5 years, it was inevitable to see these two tools merge in one. What would fix the email vs. social network once for all, making both disappear to the profit of a conversational and collaborative hub, that would be global and multi-signal. The same prediction can also be made for Gmail and Google +. The merger may even come faster. But I can’t see something similar with Outlook and Sharepoint, none of these tools being really social despite Redmond’s efforts. Something may happen with Yammer as a pivot but it will take longer.

Soon : the “communication hub”

The future of the client will either be rich or light, each one having its pros and being good in specific contexts….until the state of technology makes it possible to make anything work in light ones, accessible through a simple browser.

It will aggregate all the signals one will receive, whatever their nature. Emails, social interactions, alerts coming from business applications, notifications etc. It will also include the documents shared by and with the user (hosted in a single copy…only the links will be shared).

It will allow to act upon any signal in the most appropriate way: answer, share, forward, make it a public discussion topic or submit it to the discussion of a closed group, even perform actions when it comes from a business application (validate, fill a form etc…). The whole in the same tool and context. Of course the signals will either come from internal and external sources. Enterprise of consumer tools.

It will aggregate in a coherent threat all the actions and conversations related to any object. Each element, signal becoming a social object or a socializable one.

Of course it will embark one’s address book and agenda. The address book will aggregate all the known identities and channels for any contact (email, IBM, enterprise social network, Twitter…), either internal or external.

It will, of course, have powerful filtering functionalities to help focusing on what the user is working on. And analytic ones to highlight and discover what matters.

Smart labelling will help to present all the interactions, documents and people related to a specific matter of interest (a project by example).

Last, it will embed videoconferencing and instant messaging funtionalities that will be triggered by clicking on one’s profile.

Conversations matter more than tools

Since the advent of the social era we heard a lot on the importance of conversations. Often with some misunderstandings  : we heard that conversations were going to replace everything : documents, processes, content. And, of course, they didn’t. On the other hand they reinforced what they were supposed to replace by making things more agile, adaptive and relevant. Better conversation management by employees help improving execution, coordination and information sharing in an impressive way. But a conversation can be split on 3 or 4 different channels, what makes it difficult to follow and manage. So what matters is to unify conversations management, whatever the channel, whatever the tool.

So stop taking the problem by the wrong end. Think about users first. Stop the signals and channels debate, fix the client one.