What email has entreprise and social networks don’t

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I know that email should be seen as Evil and that eradicating it from the workplace is trendy but there is no getting away from the facts. Except in some very rare cases the promise of diminishing the number of emails by using enterprise social network has never been kept.

First because the center of gravity of the (digital) workplace has not moved outside of the email and it’s not going to happen until all communication flows and channels move to the activity stream or the activity stream moves to the home page of the intranet. Then because enterprise social networks use emails to notify users. Ok, the nature of email changes and the real information is not in the inbox anyway, replaced with alerts and links but it’s not a big change regarding to volumes.

We like social networks but we always come back to email

No matter how convinced we are by enterprise social networks, we often surprise ourselves coming back to this tool we love to have but sticks to our habits  like a chewing-gum under one’s shoe. This is due to two main causes we won’t get rid of any time soon.

The first one is that an enterprise social network is – without questioning its potential – an hybrid solution when it becomes important to structure things. Communities, tags, categories, functionalities force us to adopt their logic. Find the right space, the right functionality, sort things properly. Some solutions are more fluid but turn enterprise network as “flow tools” where, as in Facebook, it’s impossible to find anything once it’s been undergrounded by tons of new contributions. Some others are more designed for work and come with a certain level of structure. But they will ne never be as structuring as document or process centric business app. It makes enterprise social network more flexible and able to support lots of collaborative patterns but makes them more constraining than email.

Email is very basic. But it’s so flexible and versatile that it can be used for anything without any constraint – even if it’s good at nothing in particular. Conversations, project management, mailing lists, document repository…we can no anything with email. Even lots of counterproductive ones. So we do lots of things, often wrong, seldom right but in a simple fashion without asking ourselves any question.

Email does everything wrong…but he does everything

We can think that, as solutions improve fast, these limits will soon disappear. But there’s another problem that will be harder to fix. Its name stands in four characters : SMTP.

For non tech-savvy people, SMTP is the protocol used to send emails from one server to another. It’s universal. It means that when you have an email address you can send email to any person having one. No matter you are on the same domain (anything.com or myco.net). No matter the technology used, Exchange, Notes/Domino, gmail. No matter the client (Outlook, Notes, Gmail, Apple Mail, Thunderbird). The exact opposite of an enterprise social network.

Let’s consider some concrete cases.

By lack of governance or by neglect, your organization has allowed many internal social networks to flourish, building as many new silos. There’s no enterprise social network common to all employees. So imagine that you are a member of the HR practitioners network, the innovator network and are willing to start a transverse community to support a project or reflection. If you want to invite people from any of your two existing networks your have a problem : there’s no place where you’ll find each of them. The only solution is to convince the administrator of one or the other to invite the people you need. It’s going to be a long and hard fight because none of them will accept to “host” people who are not in his scope with his budget. “This is my budget, I’ll pay for my people”. Bottom line : email works and works from day one for everyone.

Second case : you’re managing a project involving internal and external people (suppliers, partners…). Obviously, external people are not in your internal network so you’ll ask to create accounts for them. Most of times your corporate policy forbids it, or the tool does not allow it (but this case is less and less frequent). Then you need to start “right now” while your IT team needs one week to create the account. Bottom line : inviting external people in your internal social network is not impossible but hard to do. Consider you’ve managed to do it and you have brought everybody in a single place : now you can collaborate. but it’s not very comfortable for your guest who need to use “‘one more tool”. But if one of them hosts the project, you will be the one who’ll have to use “one more tool”. Not natural, not integrated in your work environment. As many reasons that make people use email because it’s less constraining.

Enterprise social networks face a major issue : they don’t have any universal protocol. They don’t have their SMTP. And while we’re promoting an open and interconnected world this limit goes against their promise, culture and DNA.

The lack of an universal exchange protocol like SMTP is a barrier to social networks adoption.

But solutions exist. The use of open standards allow interoperability between enterprise social networks. These standards exist and some major players like IBM, SAP, Jive or Google work at promoting and improve them. But, even if this approach is desirable and necessary, it won’t be easy to make it mainstream.

First because interoperability is not native and needs to be implemented. Imagine the integration work to be done at the IT level  every time you have to collaborate with a new supplier…a nightmare. Then because one of the major player in the industry – Microsoft not to name him – does not seem to pay any attention to the matter, maybe because they consider they are the standards and don’t need to integrate with others. The problem is they lock their customers into their products while corporate IT are getting more and more heterogenous. Interoperability won’t work at scale if one player – even if he’s alone – does not play the game.

Honestly, I don’t see any easy and cost-efficient answer to this issue. A strong governance leading to the use of a single platform an help internally. But cross organizations collaboration will still be hard and painful, preventing social networks to replace email.