Social networking won't solve email frustrations
The reason I hear the most -- even moreseo than better collaboration around projects and ideas -- for business social networking is to get rid of email, which some view as nothing more than a giant spam engine. The theory is that real, valuable communications will move off email, so people can reduce communications overhead dramatically.
This is an amazingly stupid hope.
Anyone with any social network account knows how much spam -- meaning stuff you don't care about, not just phishing and unwanted marketing pitches -- comes through those channels. Spam goes wherever the communications occurs. It's not an issue intrinsic to email. Even point-to-point communications technologies such as instant messaging can feel spammy if one party overcommunicates.
There are risks of adding communication channels to solve the alleged email problem. One is a fracturing of communication, forcing employees to pay attention to multiple channels, often via different tools. With email at least you can have multiple accounts flow into one software client, and even apply consistent filtering rules to all of them, as well as search them simultaneously from one location. That's not the case with the various social networking tools -- each is its own island.
Another risk is sustained by the business. Corporate email is typically stored for e-discovery and archival purposes. If you add channels, those too must be stored for e-discovery and the archives, yet many social networking tools aren't rdesigned for that. Thus, the liability risk for regulated companies increases. Where vendors have added e-discovery and archival capabilities to address the liability issue, the price is a more complex IT environment and a more complex e-discovery process across the multiple tools.
Focus on specific collaboration needs, not social networking
If your business's goal around social networking is to improve collaboration, put social networking to the side and look instead at collaboration tools.
Do your employees have problems finding helpful colleagues in other groups? Work on your internal corporate directory to expose more about what they know and do, in a searchable way.
Is your problem that people in different locations can't easily collaborate? Look at wikis, message boards, and other asynchronous forms of shared communication -- such "social" collaboration tools can work very well for small to medium groups that share a mission or project. Don't forget about using email folders either!
Also, most modern laptops and tablets have cameras, microphones, and speakers, so you can do simple videoconferencing over inexpensive and even free chat services -- Windows and OS X have built-in support for several such clients. Likewise, whiteboarding applications such as Adobe Connect and Yuuguu can show people mockups and the like via computer screens. If your company is very process-oriented, tools such as Socialcast can integrate the communications workflow into the entire workflow for specific business processes. Be warned: These tools can have a whiff of Big Brother monitoring about them that will make employees avoid them or use them only pro forma.
Is your problem email overload? Teach people how to use the filtering tools in their email clients, as well as how to think about what they email. Not all problems can be solved with technology; ironically, this should be obvious if your instinct is to encourage the use of social tools. Social means people, and that's where you need to start.
This article, "The fallacy of business social networking," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.