Will social media spell the end of e-mail in the enterprise? It's certainly not the first time this question has been posed, if you substitute groupware, wiki or Intranet for social media. E-mail-like the mainframe and Windows XP-likely has a long life ahead of it. But it's not an irrelevant question this time around.
A study commissioned by Skype and conducted by Incites Research showed that e-mail usage was set to decline slightly in 2011, although the same study showed that e-mail was one of the two indispensable communication methods. More than 90 percent of people in the workplace use e-mail, compared to just under 40 percent of workers who use social media tools.
The better way to ask the question, however, is, "Will social media tools open a new wave of user productivity?" I pose the question this way to suggest that IT managers should be looking today at how social media tools ranging from Salesforce.com Chatter to Socialcast or Socialtext can help set the stage for a productivity boost in their enterprises.
At eWEEK, we've covered social media tools for the last couple of years. In those examinations we looked at the pros and cons of what was then an emerging technology. What's changed in the intervening time is the wildfire spread of social media adoption among consumers. The growth of Facebook and even Twitter among a growing number of workers is joining a number of other trends that shake up traditional IT control over how we work. Bring your own device, a tsunami of mobile device models and the upheaval in mobile computing operating systems are all co-factors that are forcing IT to accommodate new ways of doing business.
While skirting the constraints of e-mail can be exciting, it's also clear that most knowledge workers don't want another communication stream on the desktop. Adoption of social media tools isn't just a matter of training users to implement a new tool. Users want to know that the effort they put into a social media platform is going to immediately provide some payoff. Being marooned on a social media island is a real threat that users want to avoid.
And e-mail sets a very high performance and reliability bar against which any other communication tool is measured. One reason e-mail chains get wackily out of control is because there is nothing quite so good at covering your hindmost parts as an e-mail. And almost every business circumstance has a widely known and well understood e-mail work flow. Even e-mail's biggest problems-spam and volume-are fenced in with preventative tools and established best practice guidelines.
When networks were unreliable, store-and-forward tools modeled on the physical postal system were a huge step forward in aiding business communication. These limitations no longer apply. The benefits for breaking out of the e-mail silo are real for those organizations that can make the jump. Transparent, controlled, secure collaboration tools are available today. An e-mail-only communication stream imposes a curtain that technology today can draw back.
Reliable networks, socially savvy users and an unforgiving economy have all set the stage for an evolution in business communication. IT managers should lead the way in outfitting organizations with the collaborative tools that both speed up and increase the value of insider communication.