email

TO: Corporate America SUBJECT: Email is Dead, Embrace Social Media By Jacob Kramer-Duffield

Social media, despite its centrality in our daily lives, still causes most businesses to tremble with fear. They fear liability over what employees may post in their official capacity. They fear embarrassing information posted by employees, both current and potential, in their off hours. They conduct social media “background checks” to ferret out anything that might reflect poorly on the business. Such is this fear that social media sites are discouraged or outright blocked at many workplaces.

As modes of business communication, social media channels are treated as loudspeakers, with messages painstakingly cleared through legal and public relations, polished to perfect sheen and void of real meaning. Meanwhile, email remains the central trusted tool of business communications. Used internally, it is the official channel for directives, meeting planning and document-sharing. It is the central way to communicate anything that matters both within your organization and to any collaborators. For external communications, email lists are built, maintained and bombarded. Huge marketing dollars are spent formulating email segmentation strategies, word-smithing, and tracking open rates.

All of this is entirely backwards.

Email is a dying medium, especially among the young. This is partly because of the signal-to-noise ratio: Spam is drowning out even the best-designed email campaigns. The volume of email and the perceived need to respond also leads to increased stress in the workplace, according to studies. Email is also insecure, best thought of as a postcard rather than a bonded letter. Anytime your message is forwarded, someone drops by your computer or has root access to the servers, your emails are exposed to view.

Some of the leading technology thinkers are already giving up on email entirely. Paul Jones, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science and School of Journalism and Mass Communications, is one such email defector. He writes, “Our world of communications interactions has gotten very rich, very sophisticated, very active and very faceted. Email can’t keep up and we can’t keep up with email.” Jones is no Luddite – he built one of the earliest sites on the web, and he was using email before most of us had ever heard of it. But he’s also seen that email has outlived its usefulness.

Luis Suarez, a Knowledge Manager, Community Builder & Social Computing Evangelist at IBM realized the same thing several years back, and has been chronicling  life without email on his blog (short version: it’s great).

But how can social media replace this tool that’s become the backbone of business culture and communications?

For intra-office communications, smart firms are already allowing or encouraging use of instant messaging (either off-the-shelf or bespoke intranets) for the kind of quick communications and question asking that clogs up inboxes. And social doesn’t need to mean open to the whole world – firms like IBM have been successfully using closed corporate social networks for years.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Rather than being forbidden from logging on to social media during work hours, employees should instead be encouraged to use whatever channel they feel most comfortable with for a given communication. It’s crucial to remember that each channel of social media is different, and has different rules, norms and communities associated with it – engaging means thinking about what channel is best for each type of communication, or each type of business, and what rules and norms should be put, thoughtfully, in place.

Skype, for example, is already mission-critical for many firms. Companies that have few employees who are dispersed globally and traveling constantly, can communicate seamlessly and with drastically lower communications costs. Google+ Hangouts may just revolutionize the conference call – changing it from the most loathed of business communications interfaces into a fun, social, productive space.

Depending on the context and kind of business, having employees connect and communicate with each other, partners, contractors and customers via LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+ might allow them to forge the kinds of ties you really want – built not just on transactions but on trust. In short, some of the most innovative new business practices are all about knocking down the idea that when employees enter the workplace, they stop being people. The bottom line: businesses badly need to rethink how they’re using both existing and emergent communications channels and ask the basic question, What is this actually good for? rather than simply continuing with business as usual. Staying invested in a dying medium that is insecure and inefficient while a whole world of potential avenues for communication blooms isn’t safe or solid – it’s just bad business.

Top image: Photoillustration by Marie-Chantal Turgeon

Jacob Kramer-Duffield is a social media consultant. He received a Ph.D. from the School of Library and Information Sciences, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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