Enterprise Social Software – ESS

Email – Love It or Hate it?

Email, don’t you just love to hate it…? Sometimes I get 200 emails a day, which I moan or boast about according to whom I am communicating with. Then the days I don’t get them, I am frantically hitting the refresh button with mild panic. Clearly the server must be down. Or, horror of horrors, am I just no longer important enough to be CC’d on absolutely everything.

OK, I am being slightly disingenuous. Although, I knew my passionate affair with the mighty mail, was well and truly over when myself and 52 other people were BCC’d into a missive that I had no clue why, what it was about, and why the secrecy. Most infuriating however is the email that slithers lithely into my inbox with dense, long, long, tortuous copy, with NO SODDING ACTION POINT for anyone. According to ITHound.com this happens to 46% of us everyday single day.

I would love to have 46% of my email stay away. I would love to have 16% of my email stay away. 6% anyone?

For the record I don’t think I am a typical technical isolationist. My Myers Briggs profile begins with an ‘E’ for Extravert, for heavens sake. Hmm, perhaps I should extend the E metaphor there for the digital age…Sadly, I Can’t think how to ;-)

When I started in the world of work, CC meant Carbon Copy. You slipped a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of crisp white paper. Woe betide you if you didn’t get each sheet absolutely truly square with each other, giving you the dreaded wonky copy. The end result, two copies of your beautifully typed, correctly spelt (ahem), document. One for the recipient and one of the dreaded filing cabinet. (I still have nightmares about the disarray lurking inside that filing cabinet).

Despite it’s digital makeover, the CC field still means Carbon Copy, although you can copy people in to your hearts content now, and file it in as many places as you and all the other recipients see fit.

From carbon paper via email, all of a sudden collaboration has happened, and at an ubiquitous level…everyone is collaborating. Whether it’s via IM, Twitter, Facebook, Skype or the many other collaboration tools on the market. People are demanding connectivity at all times, with the personal and professional colliding and merging, both in and out of the workplace. (And giving corporate governance a major headache to boot).

Internet Shrinks the World Shocker

Just as the internet has shrunk our view of the world, increased globalisation has changed business models and our expectations forever it seems. A couple of days ago I was commuting out of London to BBC Caversham. Going in the opposite direction to everyone coming into London I was struck by just how many people were huddled over their smart phones as they waited for their train, scrolling through their chosen media. Only a few years ago, those same people would have all been grappling with their broadsheets.

The youngsters coming into the workplace are meant to be driving the change away from singular, constructed communication towards collaboration. And to some extent that’s true. I would like to proffer an alternative view however. Could it be that us influential oldies might quite like to have a bit of a life these days and collaboration tools, in whatever form, allow us not to be tethered to the office 24 / 7?

But wait, are we talking about constant connectivity here or the emergence of social media as the primary communication tool? Both perhaps?

Communication v Collaboration

Which brings us right back to those 200 emails. There are many reasons why email no longer works for many people, in large organisations especially. Mostly they centre around time management and releasing information silos. Pushing an email into an inbox is all very well, but it’s up to the recipient when they respond and indeed if they respond. Email is not collaboration, it’s communication at best, and passive aggressive at worst. It shifts responsibility and definitely doesn’t share it. AKA ‘I emailed you therefore I have covered my derriere’. (Or CYA as it’s known in certain circles).

With email the emphasis is very firmly on one time communication. And certainly not on collaborating for mutual benefit. Additionally the recipient might need to trawl through copious pages of fragmented responses to get to the nub of the issue that’s relevant to them, thus killing any timely and decisive action taking stone dead.

Enterprise Social Software AKA ESS

So, I’ve been looking at Enterprise Social Software or, because we have to have acronyms, ESS. According to Wikipedia ESS is ‘a system of web-based technologies that provide rapid and agile collaboration, information sharing, emergence and integration capabilities in the extended enterprise’. In short, they take what we are doing in our personal lives on the likes of Twitter, Facebook, IM etc and enable a similar kind of collaboration and consensus in the workplace.

It all sounds perfectly plausible, and for the last wee while I’ve been really excited about the possibilities it might create in the workplace. Especially if we are moving to flexible working.

Personal excitement aside, it would take a huge cultural shift away from the ubiquity of email as a process of communication and documentation that just doesn’t bare thinking about. Email is more and more becoming admissible evidence and formal documentation. Lest we forget the Enron case and the Sarbanes Oxley Act requiring companies to be SOX compliant. One aspect of SOX is the requirement for all email (and all other backed up data like IM) be deleted after 90 days for fear of incrimination and litigation. Although this is an American act, similar levels of governance are creeping into UK and international companies. I bet News International are wishing they were SOX compliant with their email data right now.

For collaboration tools to be effective the industry needs to be collaborative and the workforce dispersed to varying degrees for collaboration tools to be really affective. That said I can’t think of a single industry where cooperative / collaborative working isn’t required. (Please leave a comment if you can think of one). Or indeed has a positive effect, unless, of course, you are colluding with the enemy in wartime!

The benefits of collaboration and social software are well documented, if not entirely measured to give hard returns as yet. As organisations grow so does the volume of email data and the infrastructure and support to serve it. Social software, like video conferencing, IM, wiki’s really lend themselves to high productivity exchanges. Yielding real time decision making to create an agility email just can’t touch.

ESS – To Be or Not To Be

The question for me does not centre around social software becoming more prevalent in the workplace, it’s whether or not we really need Enterprise grade solutions to service this requirement just yet.

I get that ultimately organisations might need to contain the exchanges made in this environment in order to make them secure. However I can’t help wondering, as we inch further towards commodity based hardware (read unlocked) and cloud based solutions become ubiquitous, whether or not we really need to contain our networks in the same old way we always have. Especially if we will be flushing out any data older than 90 days a la SOX.

I work in many organisations, and yes we all know that Skype backs up the conversations that we have, and that we shouldn’t really use Spotify because it’s peer to peer and breaking all sorts of corporate policies. That said, the use of Google docs, Dropbox and the like to file share is wildly prevalent, because Enterprise can’t keep up with the pace of change in the consumer market. Is this secure? To all intents and purposes yes. Would you want to use it to share highly sensitive data? Probably not.

One organisation I work in, has a very strict governance model, it’s very black and white with hardly any shades of grey. Needless to say the desktop is well and truly locked down, with extra padlocks for good measure. For example, you are expressly forbidden to use Skype. So the workforce have simply renamed their .exe ‘notskype’ so it doesn’t get wiped from their profile. Cunning. That said, it’s not the board members using it, who really do have something to keep top secret. It’s the likes of you and me, who just want to get moving on a project, or kick the tyres of an idea.

As the line between work and home becomes blurred, perhaps a better use of our budget might focus around education. Educating around why IT departments get nervous when you want us to unlock your desktop so you can download the latest codecs. Why we really do want to support the move to commodity based kit, but getting the networks ready, and managing processes, like licenses etc etc, becomes a logistical nightmare and really does take time. Education around what is acceptable use, and what really isn’t. And why it’s not just the IT department saying NO as usual.

ESS – The Conclusion (But Not The Final Word)

I do think there is a time and a place for ESS, perhaps just not yet while we are still so wedded to our beloved email. Not until your organisation has reached the tipping point in it’s usage, is it worth investing. You’ll never make the business model stand up anyway.
Rather than taking a hammer to crack a nut, and getting full scale Enterprise grade social software, why not let your workforce drive the blur between home and work social software, and react in retrospect with a considered offering to address the shortfalls in security. Rather that the usual IT way, which is launch a solution that might prevent every single potential security breach going upfront. And become impossible to use in the process.

In reality I am still exploring this subject and debating what I really think about it with colleagues. So please do feel free to comment, and leave counter arguments to keep the debate alive. Watch out for an addendum to this blog…

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