Will social technology kill email?

Two weeks ago, the French information technology company Atos declared they will eliminate email for intra-employee communication over the next 18 months. Even before this announcement, there was no doubt that email is under pressure and that this could be a great thing. If you consider that the whole spectrum of BPM involves a significant amount of human decisions and work, email has been an end user BPM tool of choice since its inception. Emails define processes, kick off processes, and are used to track processes. Here are three classic ways emails have provided BPM value over the years.

Definition and collaboration

“Do you agree we should create a presentation specific to that customer?

Email is being used to define and collaborate around a sales process step. It could have been sent to one or many people, and the replies might be in more emails until two or more people talk about the question. Easy to do, but not repeatable and not governed. Necessary, however, because there is no centralized way to collaborate on process. From a transparency perspective, this is worst-case. Lots of energy being consumed, few lasting effects.

Notification

“A new action was added to the process, ‘sales process'”

Email just became a communication tool to let the user know there is an event that should be known. It acts as a pointer to data in another system where the user goes to find meaningful information and maybe to collaborate. This is only valuable because the organization can’t be certain that people would be aware otherwise. It is necessary because there is no centralized place for people to get information in real-time…no where people ‘live’ for work purposes.

Documentation

“Customer X, your account review is complete and your current balance reflects any adjustments.”

Communication is forwarded, time stamped, archived. Email is an output of process and not the way process is created, discussed, decided and conveyed. This use of email for BPM isn’t a necessary evil, but more likely connected to a compliance or regulatory requirement. Even this won’t last forever, as the step beyond personal social to professional social is likely to be a collision of our personal and professional social worlds. There’s no reason why it can’t be so. Why can’t a doctor notify a patient through social media?

Transparency

Transparency is the key. Social technology has at its core the ability for the few to speak to the many as well as point-to-point communication. It allows conversations to be discovered, joined, and augmented by the greatest number of voices or as few as should be allowed. It ‘finds’ us through clever tools like hash tags and topics. It gives us the benefits that email simply never will.

Ubiquity

For email not to be the go-to for BPM, there needs to be an always-on, always front and center way to positively acknowledge communication. Social holds that promise and in fact is already through its first implementations at places like TIBCO and is showing surprising returns. When a social technology is the fastest, easiest, most accurate and timely way to communicate, it will dominate the space that email currently occupies.

What about the stats?

“30 million horses were shod this year and that’s 10 percent more than last year!” would have been a believable statistic in the early 20th Century. It could have been used to argue that the automobile will never replace the horse. There’s a significant problem with statistics…they don’t always indicate trends. In this made-up example, the World’s population was growing, and maybe more people were able to afford horses but not cars…yet. Movements emerge before the statistics catch up as the population first understands and then adapts to new ideas.

My bold statement: If a social platform or communication method becomes as ubiquitous as email, it will replace this form of BPM. Social communications are far easier to analyze and direct than “dumb data” found in documents, including in email. Email has the same problem as Visio or any other documents-as-data. They lock important information into a source that is more difficult to mine and manage.

Prediction: Email will be around for a while…in the meantime, we need to use it appropriately.

UPDATE:

For another take on this post, see Marco Brambilla’s post, “Are mobile and consumerization keys for event-based SocialBPM?

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11 Responses to “Will social technology kill email?”

  1. Craig J Willis
    December 15, 2011 at 12:42 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I think your prediction is correct, especially the assertion that “we need to use it appropriately.” I’ve read so many articles recently proclaiming the ‘death’ of email that I’m starting to feel the need to start a ‘Save the Mail’ campaign! I can’t help feeling it’s a bit like the radio, the advent of the television apparently signaled the end of radio and yet it’s still here and still popular. Why? Because it delivers a service that TV cannot, I cannot drive and watch TV, it’s difficult to perform activities that require high levels of concentration over prolonged periods and watch TV. With the radio I can listen to music, discussions, news reports and sports fixtures without visual distraction.

    I suspect that in time we may discover that email, in some form or another, will provide us with a similar service that cannot be achieved through social media. I believe email will be replaced by social media as the first thing you look at in the morning, as it has in my life, but I’m not convinced it will ‘die’.

    Is what you are describing here Social BPM? It sounds a lot like it!

    • December 15, 2011 at 6:36 am #

      It absolutely IS social BPM. Email has been the tool for social BPM and that hasn’t worked any better than the back of a napkin or brown paper. I agree with you that email has its limited place.

  2. John Coles
    December 15, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Chris/Craig:

    Great digital discussion.

    Here is the analogy I like to use between email and social media. (Email = Pond, Social Media = Stream)

    Email is your individual collecting pond. Water drains to it, and I can consistently go there extract water, fish and swim. I can see the different types of fish in my pond.

    Social media is the stream that flows next to the collecting pond. Some of the water drains into my personal collecting pond, along with some fish, but a majority of the water and the fish just flow on by. If I am not watching the stream constantly, then I may miss some valuable fish that did not end up in my pond. But is it worth it for me to stare at the stream all day long? What about when I sleep? Inevitably, I am going to miss something.

    Whereas, my pond is to some extent under my control. What is there, will remain there. I can always venture to my pond at my pace, and extract what I need or want.

    Considering that every individual, and organization can create their stream, it is difficult to be in all places at all times. As well, it is more complex to manage the volume of water, fish and whatever else floats by.

    So you really can’t choose sides between Email and Social Media. They complement each other, and today, they serve different purposes in our compartmentalized brains. Social Media has splashed on the scene, and currently has a Wow factor. We need to get smarter on how we use these tools, when we use these tools, and why we use these tools (or when we access our personal collecting ponds, or visit the numerous streams). It is no longer acceptable to be very efficient, we must be very effective. Running back and forth between your pond, and all the streams just adds to the rat race.

    So could we say that a BPM Configurator needs to be applied to how we communicate, when, and what tools we use?

    Here are a few more thoughts …
    – your company’s knowledge base could be considered a lake that all can access
    – your Facebook login is your email address
    – analysis of effective tools (email vs social media) needs to consider other channels, such as the phone, and face-to-face meetings, etc …

    • December 15, 2011 at 8:03 am #

      Great comments, John. What if you can attach documents, communicate point-to-point, and just get info from your ‘pond’ when you need to? We use tibbr, and it allows me to drop into an account (by following it as a subject), immediately see all of the information that surrounds it, add as needed, take away as needed, and then move on.

  3. December 17, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    For another take on this, check out Marco Brambilla’s post today: http://www.modeldrivenstar.org/2011/12/mobile-and-consumerization-keys-for.html#disqus_thread

  4. December 18, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    The issue has always been context for business communication networks.

    How can we emulate “social networks” and dynamically start a business process, join a process, combine processes, exit processes and recombine processes; in the way facebook users dynamically manage and execute conversations in context.

    That demands a Dynamic Network Architecture (DNA) where business process and context can evolve like contextual conversations can and do.
    This technology will be based on simple buildings that are predictable, replicable, stackable, cheap and freely interconnectable.

    2012 will be the year of delivery for this disruptive technology.

  5. March 5, 2012 at 4:51 am #

    http://techcrunch.com/2012/03/04/everything-everywhere-all-the-time/

    Interesting take on the same problem. It’s not so much the fact it all has to be real-time and instant and transparent, it has to be intelligent. People simply do not have the capacity to process information all the time, they’ll carry across the same habits they use with email, ie scan the last paragraph for the actual request of them. It goes back to what I wrote before about relevancy:

    http://www.futuredux.com/2011/09/06/the-relevance-paradox-and-the-social-enterprise-promise/

    We need to get smarter for sure, but the tools have to evolve to be beyond simply a carrier of information….

    • March 5, 2012 at 6:27 am #

      Thanks, Theo. The more things change, the more they stay the same is as true today as ever.

      Chris

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