Last year, one of my favorite blogs LifeHacker asked the question “Can Social Tools Really Replace Email?” That question has been somewhat on my mind lately. Their question is based upon the New York Times article by IBM Social Computing Evangelist (how do I get that job?) Luis Suarez titled “I Freed Myself From E-Mail’s Grip“.
I reported the other day how “32% of ‘Influential Churches’ in US are on Facebook” on the Church of God Perspective blog. Adoptions of technology in churches can be slow, perhaps because of the top-down nature of the organizations involved. However, there are financial and time commitment constraints that have to weigh in as well. Is it any different in a business, however? Most businesses these days are very conscious of their cash flow. If they are not laying people off, then they are freezing new hires.
What can organizations do to make their members more efficient? Is wading through tons of email really that efficient? Sure, you can setup filters, but those are usually best guesses that try to predict certain types of messages. When emails don’t fit the mold, this can backfire.
Suarez talks about an internal tool similar to Facebook where you can look up experts on particular subjects. There are many other collaboration and ERP systems that have adopted similar types of directories.
With the churn of turnover in many companies these days, you can no longer assume Sally who took over maintenance of that Access database will be there tomorrow. Who do you call now for your Access advice? As far as you know, all the others on the database team are SQL Server experts. You can either call each one, or you can try to chase down their boss to see who else might know Access.
Churches sometimes are small enough where you don’t have that problem. However, even then there is what is known as the “tribal knowledge” effect. What if an outsider needs counseling on alcoholism? As in right now? That person can try to find the email for the pastor or ask around (if they aren’t too embarrassed). Perhaps they will give up trying.
These situations can be vital problems that need a solution. The larger the organization, the more the need for an answer. Email just won’t cut it.
Wikis, IMO, are far underrated. Anyone who has used Wikipedia knows that there is a world of information right at your fingertips. Even if you do not have an expert directory, you can put up articles, cross-link them, do searches and present a complete picture of information on topics in a manner that is difficult otherwise. The best part is that if you allow participation of an entire group, the organization is organically grown, thus making it easier for people to find the information.
Now, I love email. It can leave a trail of discussion that is helpful and I can organize it how I want. However, it is in my private inbox. No one else can see it. If everyone keeps all of their “pertinent” emails, then server space can be eaten up quickly. Yet, how does one know what’s going to be needed in the future? Usually, one doesn’t, so the user just saves it off “just in case”. If John deletes an email he later needs, he may ask Sally for a copy or vice-versa. A discussion forum, though, is centralized. There aren’t concerns about what to keep and what not to keep. There is only one copy of the discussion, not 10 or 20.
Can these tools really replace email? No, not completely. Suarez seems to argue that email can become extinct, yet even he mentions that he still uses it for more private discussions. His argument, though, is that in many cases a phone call or an instant message can replace even that. There is a time for a phone call, and I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of IM. Email provides a record that I can look up later, where I can jog my memory or copy and paste as appropriate. I don’t see it completely going away.
However, how many conversations are tucked away in various email files that really are not private? How many are you just Cc’ed on “just in case”? How many would benefit a much larger audience? That is where the beauty of social tools comes in.
Social tools, if used appropriately, can benefit any organization, whether for- or non-profit.