Enterprise social software? It’s your inbox.

Socialtext considers this a plus:

“We used to have over 100 group emails per day. Now it’s rarely one per week […]”
Tom Jessiman, General Manager, Ziff Davis Media

I couldn’t disagree more. Our experience shows very clearly how social software doesn’t really work without an event-driven and passive communication hub such as email. The new lightweight information infrastructure can miserably fail without a working notification scenario: the wiki approach rocks, and can definitely turn quite a few tables in traditional corporate environments, but by itself it’s just not enough.

Social software the way I see it is twofold: it’s not just about facilitating the information building process, the real plus is making sure that everyone is aware of what’s going at any given time. Information has to flow to come to life and promote teamwork. Lack of a notification process is like a dam turning a fast flowing river into a quiet lake. Lots of water, but little or no stream, tasteless fish, algae all over the place and rotten smell.

Inertia and packed schedules are social software killers: there is little or no point in working on a wiki page if getting others to know the new information requires everyone on your team to be proactive enough to check the Recent Changes page frequently. This is even more true if there are more collaboration tools in the picture: as a developer, version control systems and issue trackers are parts of my daily life, and I can definitely notice the shift in team productivity when every single tool is tightly integrated with a (archived and searchable, if possible) mailing list. I just can’t be productive if I have to check three different web pages to get a grasp of what’s going on.

Everyone uses e-mail, and this isn’t likely to change. Your email software is still the best place to organize information the way you feel comfortable with. Email is asynchronous, if you’re busy you just shut down the software, yet it’s passive: emails flow in, and you don’t have to be proactive about it. The information is there, and there is a much smaller chance of missing a bit.

Of course collaboration tools are making a change. No more lousy attachments, no more large emails, no more endless threads: email is becoming a large bag of information pointers, but still the starting points are in everyone’s inbox. I want more email, not less: care should be taken in avoiding email floods and people leaning on the delete key, messages should be properly formatted, with meaningful subjects and short information snippets and pointers, and there must be a searchable archive to quickly find the information you’re looking for. Make sure all this happen, and you’ll see the real boost.

Bottom line: if you start using social software, make sure your inboxes drop in size, not in message count. If you start getting less email, there is something wrong.



3 thoughts on “Enterprise social software? It’s your inbox.”

  1. I totally agree with your post. Sharing information only works if the information is cheap to produce, but also if it’s cheap to consume.

    Cheap production means making effective use of information produced by people as side-effects of their work, and CVS commit mails are a perfect example of this. Cheap consumption means – as you say – avoiding to go through a dozen web pages. RSS+emails are key for people to be fed with the information they want.

  2. Ross, thanks for the comment. I’m sure your software integrates with email, still I see e-mail traffic reduction tooted as a feature in your descriptions (see http://www.socialtext.com/products/: you prominently mention email overload and people getting too much email). My point is we need better email, not less.

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