The interface between social networking and email as well as where enterprise collaboration is going has been the subject of a lot of speculation recently. Only this week, at Gartner’s Symposium/ITxpo 2010, Gartner’s Monica Basso added to the mix by suggesting that by 2014 social networking will replace email for interpersonal business communications.

Well, not really replace. What Ms Basso is really suggesting is that that email will not disappear, but that, by 2014, email and social networking will be converged for 20% of business users, a trend that is set to continue into the future.

This is not the first time we have come across this argument, and there is anecdotal and product-based evidence to suggest that this is already happening with large email providers like Google.

In August this year, Yaacov Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO of Mainsoft, pointed out in CMSWire that Google Voice’s decision to provide a complete phone calling service within Gmail and to pull the plug on Google Wave demonstrates that Gmail has become the centrepiece of Google’s Enterprise 2.0 initiative.

And it seems that these are the kind of initiatives that Basso, a research VP at Gartner, is talking about when she examined the convergence of the two.

Email and Social Networking

Basso’s argument goes like this. In the past, organizations supported collaboration through email and structured applications. What we are witnessing now is the convergence of social networking with email and instant messaging applications.

Newer -- and presumably younger -- entrants into the enterprise have developed the habit of communicating through social networks, but because email is still an enterprise standard application, they will communicate running the two different formats in tandem with each other.

The result will be an erosion of the distinction between email and social networks with email taking on many social attributes, and social networks developing richer email capabilities.

Vendors Need to Social Enable Email

At what point vendors respond to this is a matter of speculation, but it is likely that where they don’t exist already, players like IBM and Microsoft will add links to the social networks within their email clients and servers, making social services like contacts, calendars and task setting ‘shareable’ across email social networks.

This will also impact mobile communications with all smartphones. By 2012, she said, contact lists, calendars and messaging clients in any smartphones will be social-enabled applications.

The Enterprise is Slow to Deploy

However, there is one fly in the ointment. That fly is the relatively slow rate of deployment of these new capabilities in some enterprises.

Fully functioning collaborative enterprises will only come about when organizations make these technologies available and users become more comfortable with them.

The most progressive organizations won’t be afraid to explore the innovative communications and collaboration models enabled by new devices and social services allow their employees to generate innovative ideas by experimenting with them,” she said.

Email as Communications Portal

Yaacov Cohen agrees. He points out that email is becoming the de facto portal for enterprise communication and collaboration citing, as an example, Outlook and its Social Connector adding a People Pane to the Outlook client to display LinkedIn or Facebook profiles.

He also points out that business users spend a good deal of their day in the email client, sending and receiving emails as well as managing tasks, calendars and appointments.

The people to whom most users send emails or receive them from also tend to be the ones that they interact most with in social networks. Additionally, the vast majority of the enterprise documents are shared using email. Documents remain the main object of collaboration within the enterprise.

Managing Email is Still an Issue

While most people will welcome the convergence of email and social collaboration tools, there is still the problem of emails and the data that is exchanged between users.

It’s not that the emails themselves are bad, but as we pointed out some weeks ago, the real problem is email mis-management.

In AIIM’s report E-Discovery and ERM: How is records management performing in the new spotlight?, which we examined last month, email was shown to be one of the areas that enterprises were finding most difficult to manage.

This is particularly apparent in retention policies around social media content. In general, the report said retention policies are quite good around office documents, but considerably less so around newer Enterprise 2.0 technologies or social media content.

Leaving aside enterprise compliance issues around retention, if retention policies around content are unclear at the moment when using social media and email separately, when the two converge, it is likely that the problem will become a good deal more pronounced.

While the issue of social media ‘noise’ is only really starting to grab the headlines in recent months, there are some vendors that are starting to include ‘noise dampening’ features into their social media products.

If email and social collaboration are on course to converge in the near future, successful organizations will be the ones that enable their employees use all the converged abilities, Basso says.

However, the really successful ones will be those that enable that convergence, and at the same time develop clear polices on how the content that exists in the converged environment is managed.