Social Networking does not replace Email Collaboration

Enterprise Social Networking “is the new battleground for all enterprise collaboration vendors:” writes Richard Edward in Moving on from a culture of collaboration by email. There is no doubt that Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) is growing, but ESN does not replace existing enterprise collaboration, especially collaboration using email.

Real Life meets Real Work

Social Networking comes from the Web. It comes from sites like Friendster, MySpace and Facebook. These sites grew to connect people with their friends. The connections are largely based on stories from people’s lives, told with short posts, links, images and videos. The purpose is predominately around leisure and social connection. More recently, Twitter has provided a lightweight complement to social networking sites, and has come to be used for work as much as real life.

Enterprise collaboration comes from no online collaboration at all. Organisations have always been plagued with the inescapable reality that as they grow, it becomes harder and harder for them to function as a single unit. You have to slice up the organisation in so many ways: geographically, into tiers, into departments and teams. And each of these divisions comes at the cost of collaboration. Historically that has not been so much of a worry, as we mostly assumed that if everyone just worked on their own tasks with the minimum of discussion, things would work fine. This is one reason that email has become so successful. It is great for communicating with individuals to get a job done. For group collaboration, it is not so good — in fact email actually discourages group discussion by making it really hard.

The Web or Email

More recently, we have realised that technology might make it easier to collaborate in groups, so that organisations could reduce some of the efficiency and effectiveness constraints of scale. The enterprise collaboration market has grown to meet this demand. But it has never quite overcome its arch-rival: email. Social networking has arisen from the web, where posts are relatively public and the large websites are free because they are paid for by advertisers. For many participants on social networks, web-based systems are the first and only form of online communication that they have become familiar with. People at work in organisations, on the other hand are used to email. Systems that do not use email have a hard time getting off the ground. If just one key team member does not switch to using the new system, the whole team is pulled back to email, despite its flaws.

Discover the Unknown or Achieve the Known

People participate in social networking and group collaboration for different reasons. In group collaboration the goal is to complete known tasks or share knowledge in a defined area, with the people we are required to work with. In social networking, the goal is to discover things we don’t already know, and to expand our social connections.

Transient Public Groups or Persistent Private Groups

Social networking and group collaboration occur in different social contexts. Group collaboration happens in persistent groups: usually teams and communities of practice. The groups usually collaborate in private, where greater trust can develop and tasks can be completed before they are delivered outside the group. Social networking takes place in networks that sprawl across the boundaries of persistent groups and organisations. It necessarily takes place in a more public setting.

The kinds of media used for the two tasks are quite different. Both use regular text, in posts of varying length. But group collaboration is likely to involve exchanging office-documents, often in successive revisions. Social networking, on the other hand, is more likely to involve images, audio and video.

Individual or Group Orientation

System Nodes Links
Social Networks Individuals Groups
Collaboration Groups Individuals

In essence, both are networks, but they have different orientations. A social network is a network of individuals where the links between the individuals constitute small transient groups. It is like a web-based public equivalent of email. Collaboration systems are a network of groups, where the individuals are the links between the groups. Both are necessary. In organisations, both have the challenge of unseating their long-encumbent competitor: email.

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