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Enterprise social software edging out internal email

As enterprise social software matures, some businesses are turning away from email as their primary collaboration tool.

Email, like snail mail, is becoming a thing of the past. A French IT company recently announced that it will ban internal email among its employees in favor of enterprise social software. The announcement has industry observers wondering if email’s days as the dominant mode within business communications and collaboration are numbered.

Thierry Brenton, CEO of Atos Origin in France, said the “zero email” policy will go into effect in as little as 18 months. He expects his employees to use enterprise social software for communications and collaboration, including instant messaging and Facebook-style social networking platforms. Email is outdated and no longer an “appropriate communication tool, [and] companies must prepare for the new wave of [social media] usage and behavior,” he said.

Social media vs. email: Is enterprise social software ready for a zero email world?

If applied to employees only, a no-email policy is feasible, according to Henry Dewing, principal analyst for Forrester Research.

“As crazy as it sounds, the idea has some merit because a lot of email today is just repeat chatter,” he said. “While email still has some life to it, I think it is a grossly overused tool.”

Many enterprises are increasing their use of enterprise social software, but they aren’t in a hurry to ban internal email use. Peter Westerveld, CIO of Minter Ellison in Sydney, Australia, deployed Quad -- Cisco Systems’ enterprise collaboration platform -- for knowledge management and messaging among approximately half of the law firm’s 2,000 employees. Still in the early stages of the product’s rollout, Westerveld said he expects the percentage of Quad users to grow.

Minter Ellison employees use Quad to manage documents and exchange information about clients and research, but the multi-site law firm still uses email -- a mode of communication that has value as a delayed-messaging tool when persistent conversation is not necessary, Westerveld said.

“From a collaboration point of view, both platforms are important,” Westerveld said. “Email provides a point-to-point communication tool between people, but Quad provides communities where knowledge and expertise can be grouped and employees can follow the posts of the appropriate expert in Facebook-type setting and communicate with them instantly.”

Social media vs. email: Social media still in the lead for now

Few if any companies are banning internal email, but many U.S. companies today are investing in enterprise social software tools for better collaboration among employees, according to Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director of Nemertes Research. Companies want to move employees’ collaboration and communication out of email as much as possible.

“The problem is email is terrible for workflow, specifically for remembering and tracking conversation,” Lazar said. “Companies are looking at platforms like Facebook and asking why don’t we communicate this way? I think companies are looking for any excuse they can to move people off of email.”

A natural progression away from email and towards social media platforms is already evident, said Lazar, noting that the use of interoffice instant messaging has replaced email use for many employee interactions. “While I don’t think you’ll see companies completely eliminate email, I think the addition of social media will take away from email more and more,” he said.

How enterprise social software can get you to zero email

Brian Riggs, research director of enterprise communications for Current Analysis, believes that the enterprise social software platform Atos is using to replace email is partially a home-grown solution -- perhaps slightly different than enterprise social software solutions available in today’s market. A single place for corporate collaboration and an all-in-one messaging interface that eliminates the need to toggle between applications, such as instant messaging and email, will be key to the policy’s success, said Riggs.

Eugene Lee, CEO of enterprise social software company SocialText, believes both email and social collaboration solutions have a place in business communications. SocialText can be used as an adjunct to a platform that many companies are very familiar with -- the intranet.

“We have been working with our clients in making their corporate intranet more social rather than static. This approach will help employees use an intranet for more than a repository of corporate documents, and actually use it to get work done. “The information and data on the intranet must be mostly provided by the people not HR,” said Lee.

“An enterprise social media platform, particularly one that would replace email, would have to incorporate both the data that emails typically hold and the ability to facilitate persistent instant messaging conversations that employees rely on when collaborating on a project,” said Forrester's Henry Dewing. He identified Salesforce as a good model for internal business communication.

“It’s important to have both data and interactions all in one place,” he said.

Social media vs. email: Email remains a necessary evil

An email-banning policy may be a noble goal, and social media collaboration can reap huge rewards for enterprises, Lazar said, however, enterprise social software still has challenges to overcome.

Companies are still struggling to determine how to evaluate the ROI of enterprise social software implementations. According to Lazar, companies struggle to measure how much money they saved and how much project delivery improved from year to year. Companies should instead track activity on enterprise social networks and survey employees to determine what value they are gaining from it.

“Improving collaboration doesn’t often lend itself to quantifiable metrics,” says Lazar. “Social media platforms will be more of a subjective measurement tool. I think it will be interesting to see the challenges we find with companies as they start adopting social tools and measuring those benefits.”

And an aggressive policy like Atos’ email ban will only work if it is supported from the top -- meaning managers within the organization must adopt and advocate for the policy, according to Riggs.

“The managers really need to actively promote [social media usage] within their teams to make sure that everybody is using it in the same way,” he said. “If you have a team of fifty people -- with only 50% actively using social software and the rest who are not, and communication is vital to whatever projects are being worked on -- the whole deployment is in jeopardy.”

Unlike email, social media is also still very new to many workers, Riggs said. “Everyone knows how to use email, but there’s still very much an employee-educational ramp up that’s required to get people to all use social software for business in such a way that everyone can communicate effectively.”

Riggs said enterprise social media vendors could solve this problem by building a platform that could aggregate different modes of messaging into one interface, including email. “I have high hopes social software will become the aggregation point that solves the messaging overload problems we have with business communication,“ Riggs said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer

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