Email took a bruising at Dachis’s recent Social Business Summit. Held up as an allegory for the failure of businesses to embrace change, kicked to the side as a hoarder of information and scoffed at as a time suck. But email wasn’t really the point. What all speakers were talking about was the opportunity and challenge that exist today for businesses to reinvent the way they communicate.  

This isn't about buying some new software and placing it on top of your existing system. This isn't about starting a corporate Twitter account that's used as another broadcast channel. This is about total reinvention of how business is done, both internally and externally.

IBM’s Reinvention

Chris Crummey speaks of social business in the tones of an evangelist. As a 22 year employee of IBM, he's born witness to the transformation the company has gone through and was at the Social Business Summit to tell the tale.

First off, Crummey hates email. Hates it. Spends as little time on it as possible and if someone has the gall to send him an email, he responds on a public wall. It's nothing personal, he just doesn't think that the information that's shared in email should be kept between the two people involved. Questions will be asked again, the information will be needed by others and besides, who enjoys slogging through a full inbox to find the one bit of information they are looking for?

He's not alone at IBM in his promotion of other forms of communication. Employees of the company send 50 million instant messages a day, sharing information farther and faster than email. Critically, support for this style of working is coming from above. IBM's CEO, Ginni Rometty started her first day on the job by releasing a company-wide videoblog. She's continued this practice, releasing videoblogs on the first day of each quarter since and inspired a rash of copycat videoblogs from executives throughout the company.

But again, this is not about videoblogs, or email or instant messaging. This is about creating a corporate culture within the company which supports new methods of communication, which breaks down previous hierarchical structures to allow anyone the opportunity to participate, i.e. to create the empowered employee. The integration of these communication initiatives into the existing platform created a high adoption rate and has changed the way IBM does business. IBM saw the writing on the wall, and made the changes necessary to stay relevant.

Org Charts, Co-evolution and the Email Warning

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If traditional organizational charts had ears, they must have been ringing as well. The IBM example above shows that social business is not about cosmetic changes. There must be a fundamental change throughout an enterprise, including a reinvention of the organizational structure, to fully realize any benefits.

Learning Opportunities

This is not an appealing prospect to many. Change is scary. As Dachis SVP of Strategy Dave Gray put it, fear is what is holding us back. But as nature has shown, organisms must evolve within their surroundings or risk extinction, and that includes companies. 

And that brings us back to email. Daniel Debow, founder of Rypple, brought up a point that resonated. Can you name any of the companies who resisted the switch to email when first introduced? No? That's because they don't exist any more.

There are more scary facts out there. The average lifespan of an S&P company is shorter, and the success rate is lower. The current approach of putting a band-aid over a fracture isn't working. Michael Jones, vice president of marketing at Dachis cited an Altimeter report identifying the average size of a community management team as being 11. How many customers does your company hope to reach? 

The time has come. It's not a choice between marketing strategies, this is something bigger. Because the day is fast approaching when the term social business will be set aside and it will just be business.

The line has been drawn. Which side will your company be on?

Image remixed from an original courtesy of Michael D Brown (Shutterstock)