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How Social Collaboration Compares to E-Mail

Social collaboration addresses some of the weaknesses of e-mail, particularly the use of mailing lists, broadcast messages, and inappropriate use of the Reply All function. Social collaboration does not necessarily replace e-mail. Anyone who attempts to frame a social collaboration initiative that way is likely to be disappointed given how ingrained the use of e-mail is in business.

When setting metrics of success, reducing the total volume of e-mail is likely to be a false or frustrating goal. On the other hand, tracking the number of mailing lists converted to more productive social collaboration groups would be a productive goal.

Social collaboration can replace many types of discussion or collaboration-oriented internal communications for which e-mail is an awkward match. Consider the weaknesses of e-mail compared with social collaboration:

  • E-mail discussions can be confusing. In any extended discussion, context is easily lost in a mess of quoted text from prior messages. It can be difficult to sort out the original question or problem posed. Social collaboration tools do a better job of organizing message threads and making it easier to scan a list of messages to see who has been participating in the discussion.

  • Private replies restrict the flow of information. Have you ever unintentionally clicked Reply instead of Reply All in a group message? (Who hasn't?)

  • Reply to All can cause trouble. Most people also have a story about the person who clicked Reply All by mistake and wound up sending a rude or unimportant comment to the whole company, when it was intended for only one person.

  • Sharing information is sometimes too easy. Proprietary information easily can be shared outside the organization if an employee failed to understand when some of the participants on an e-mail discussion thread are outsiders.

  • Version control can be difficult through e-mail. When collaborators exchange documents through e-mail, there is room for confusion about who has the latest version. Documents shared in a social collaboration workspace are less subject to this confusion, particularly if the collaborators make their edits within the web-based system rather than downloading them for offline editing. Or, a document management system can be used to enforce checking in and checking out documents in an orderly way.

  • E-mail strains IT resources. E-mail distribution of documents consumes more bandwidth and storage than necessary because a complete copy of the document is transmitted to every recipient (including people who may never read it). Sharing a link to that same document in a centralized repository, whether through e-mail or a message on the social collaboration system, makes more frugal use of network resources.

  • E-mail is private by default. Information that ought to be shared more widely can end up trapped in the inbox of one person or a small number of people. That same information shared on a social collaboration system would be broadly available (either to the whole company or members of an interest or project group) and searchable.

Social collaboration doesn’t hold all the advantages, however. Here are some of the strengths of e-mail:

  • E-mail is an Internet standard. You can send business e-mail to any e-mail addresses inside or outside your company.

  • E-mail programs work together. You can send an e-mail to someone using a different program than he will use to receive it. In contrast, every social collaboration system is isolated.

  • E-mail support is widely available. E-mail is an established technology, so supporting tools for administration, archiving, and compliance are well established.

  • E-mail works well for private messages. Social collaboration systems may provide their own private messaging systems, but most employees still find sending an e-mail faster, easier, and more familiar. Conservative organizations may also be more willing to trust e-mail with private messages on sensitive topics or the transmission of documents, such as drafts of contracts.

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