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Years ago when I worked for a software company a human resources intern selected the wrong distribution list and accidentally sent an email to all 3,000 employees of the firm. Within five minutes about two hundred people hit ‘reply to all’ asking what the email was about or insisting to be removed from the distribution list.

Over the next half hour, hundreds of more people hit ‘reply to all’ telling everyone (ironically enough) to stop replying to all. In less than an hour my inbox—like everyone else’s—was overloaded. You could almost feel productivity grinding to a halt as wave after wave of self-inflicted spam clogged the company’s network. Finally and thankfully, the IT team managed to get control of the situation, purging the hundreds of unneeded, unwanted emails that had proliferated from nothing more than an intern’s erroneous mouse click.

Ask around and you’ll find that almost everyone has a similar workplace story. And although my example may be a bit extreme, it illustrates how traditional email, nominally a productivity tool, can at times actually make an organization less productive. And some are saying that with the rise of social media as a new paradigm for collaboration and communication, emails in the workplace may soon become a thing of the past.

With the explosion of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and others, more and more companies are deploying enterprise social software (ESS) internally to take advantage of the popularity, ease-of-use, and potential productivity gains that social media offers. But is it all marketing hype or are we really on the verge of a new way of communicating and collaborating in the workplace?

Enterprise Social Software – Wave of the Future or Shelfware?

The makers of leading ESS platforms like Jive, Yammer (According to news, Microsoft is in talks to buy Yammer for over $1B),’s Chatter, and(current market leader) IBM’s Connections tout the following benefits:

  1. Real-time collaboration enables rich, cross-organizational communication without emails or meetings, speeding up project turnaround times and idea-to-market development cycles
  2. Fosters innovation in products and services via crowd-sourcing with employees, partners, and customers
  3. Creates new, boundary-less professional networks clustered around key topics (vs. relying on impersonal and siloed email distribution lists)
  4. Cloud-based architectures for easy deployment and flexibility

For frequent social media users, it’s not much of a stretch to see how the workplace can benefit fro man easy-to-use, real-time Facebook or Twitter-like platform. And it’s not much more of a stretch to imagine ESS-based communication becoming more popular than, if not replacing entirely, traditional email. But as the list of companies implementing ESS grows, a few common barriers for a successful implementation have become apparent, including:

  1. Lack of executive sponsorship
  2. Unclear ESS strategy or long-term vision
  3. Information security concerns on an open platform
  4. User‘generational gap’

To expand on the last point, Gia Lyons of Jive Software says, “You can’t assume everyone in the organization understands the value of social software…Not everyone is on Facebook.”

But Will ESS Kill Email?

In the past few years with the explosion of social media popularity, the death of email has been predicted far and wide (and repeatedly) by many industry observers. In 2010 Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg was famously quoted as saying email is “probably going away.”

Well maybe, maybe not. An email has deep roots in most organizations. Everyone uses it all the time every day, and whether we want to admit it or not, many of us have an email addiction (don’t believe me? Try using your workplace computer for 15 minutes without checking your email). Resistance to change has always been one of the top reasons IT projects fail, and leaving email behind completely represents an enormous change for most organizations.

Even with its obvious shortcomings when compared to the open, real-time collaboration of ESS, email is still the most effective tool for communications that convey an action-oriented task (like a ‘send me the updated ESS usage reports’ request from your boss) or for delivering sensitive or critical information not appropriate for an open, everyone-can-see-it social setting.
So, will ESS-enabled chats and postings replace email in the workplace? In the end, is this even the right question to ask? Does it have to be one or the other or can it be both?
What do you think?