Social Business, Are We Done with Email
And is this the conversation we should be having?

I'm often surprised to (still) answer questions about whether email will meet its end with the emergence of social tools. I was recently asked some questions about this, and it got me thinking -- are we so focused on cramming old models into new tools that we're missing the point of how people use them? I suppose it depends on whether you think the point is to increase productivity by 10%, or you're interested in an evolving business world moving to something more meaningful, resilient and sustainably prosperous.

That debate is another post … so let's get back to email.

The big questions are often: will we replace email all together? Will we move our communications to social networks? My answer is no. Not any time soon, at least.

Getting to the real question

As humans, we communicate in a broad variety of ways. We are swimming in myriad options for tool-based communication. Each tool holds its own properties of privacy, formality, permanence, availability, etc. Those properties help users decide which tools to use in different scenarios. We keep a personal matrix of rules in our heads that change by the minute based on the relationship and qualities of the exchange in play. Ever had an email or IM escalate to a conversation? A tweet or a status update turn into a Skype call, maybe?

Let’s say you're delivering a report to your CEO that you cannot deliver in person. You can post it and share it with her, drop it in an IM, or email it. Each one of these tools offers a time stamp, a message option, a receipt and an opportunity for contextual dialog. All the features and signals are there. Yet, you can imagine that more often than not, the answer would still be email these days. The features have little to do with the choice.

Email is often perceived as a formal or official channel (remember when we used to complain that it wasn't? Did I just date myself?). More formal cultures with more rigid measures will defer to email when communications are considered critical or formal. It’s not the features; it’s perception and behavior.

This gets to the heart of binary assumptions we often make about how social technologies are adopted or not. Process flows and rigid use cases that omit the culture and qualities of the relationships at play will often yield lackluster participation results. Relationships are complex and tools don't always reflect that. That reality drives our own individual ecosystem of communication channels -- text in the everyday, but a real paper card for a birthday, calling your mom vs. tagging her in Facebook, for example.

Separating the tool from the behavior

IT has embraced a growing ecosystem over the years. We have IM, social networks, we text, share folders, email and call. We all have different parameters for to whom, when and how we wield these tools. Replacing email entirely with any single option would break our social norms. Behaviorally we'll find the most comfortable, reliable path to our destination in a particular situation. For many, that is still very much email. You have to know that's a given that won't easily change. We've all had our personal shifts in the communication ecosystem over the past decade, but our core still remains. That’s not to say that technology won’t be able to more meaningfully reflect our complexity in future breakthroughs.

When we talk about email reduction at this point we need to be thinking about email reduction that counts. Massive email lists where reply all is the norm, using email as IM, forcing notifications or thoughtlessly spamming each other -- these are all behaviors, not failings of a tool.

Few businesses invest in training staff to effectively leverage email, and thus far, the majority of training I see around social networks has more to do with marketing and governance than effective use for productivity. We’re watching the tools adapt and evolve over time. My more cynical side thinks we’re hoping the tools will do the work for us. As our world shifts we’ve got a ripe opportunity to adapt our approach so that we might improve our experience within it. As Euan Semple says, “we need to grow up.”

Until my contextually aware communications hover board arrives, the onus is on us to wield our entire ecosystem of tools as best we can.

Title image courtesy of wavebreakmedia (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Megan in The Real Opportunity of Employee Engagement: Resilient, Agile Organizations