Can internal networks replace email in the workplace?

Enterprise social networks such as Yammer can save time and promote collaboration, but organizations’ cultures too often ignore messaging, leaving choices in the hands of individual employees.

Is email’s popularity a matter of efficacy, or just familiarity?

A study finding email remains the most important digital tool for American workers reveals significant obstacles to the adoption of collaborative applications necessary to compete in 2015 and beyond.

Email’s roots go back to the early 1960s, more than a half-century ago. Its business adoption began in the early 1990s, hampered by confusing and incompatible technologies, along with the usual legal and security concerns that accompany any new technology into the workplace. Once it took root, it was easily seen as a better communication tool than inter-office memos, faxes and voicemail.

According to the Pew Study, Technology’s Impact on Workers, email remains “very important” to 61 percent of workers. The Internet takes second place with 54 percent of workers calling it “very important.” Landlines are more important than mobile phones (35 percent and 24 percent, respectively). Social networking sites (such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn) are important to a scant 4 percent of workers.

If you take into account only office-based (or information) workers, email’s importance rises to 78 percent of respondents, with 68 percent saying the Internet is “very important.” Landline phones are still more important than mobile phones, and 7 percent of those respondents find value in social networking sites.

I read through the study results and wondered how employees ranked enterprise social networks (ESNs) such as Yammer, Chatter, Jive, SocialCast and the host of others designed to create community, forge connections and promote collaboration. Unfortunately, ESNs were not among the digital tools survey respondents could rate.

Pew Research evidently doesn’t think the category is important enough for employees or businesses to include in the survey. Either that or they figured employees would lump them into the “social networks” category, but that’s unlikely, given that those networks are all external and Internet-based.

Why should these results raise red flags in organizations?

Email is ineffective for most communication

In employee focus groups for a client conducting an internal communications audit, I kept hearing the same complaint: Employees needed a specific set of data in order to do their jobs but had a hard time finding it. When this issue arose in the final focus group, one employee asked, “Why aren’t you all on the Research Department mailing list? Those numbers are in the email they send out every Friday.” Three other employees in the session sat up and said, in unison, “Mailing list? What mailing list?”

Email mailing lists were a boon when they were introduced, but compared with newer technologies, they are clunky and problematic. You have to know a given mailing list exists; then you have to get added to the list. You can forward it to someone who needs it, but that doesn’t get them on the list.

If the research department had a profile on an ESN, employees who found value in the information it shares could simply follow it. If an employee knows someone else who could use that information, she could share it and her colleague could also opt to follow the department to get all its updates.

Most enterprise social networks fail

That same company had invested considerable resources launching an ESN. Hardly anybody used it.

That’s not uncommon. A typical response to the question, “How do you like your internal social network?” goes like this: “I went there once to see what I could find, but all I found was other people leaving messages saying, ‘Here I am, but I don’t see anything useful here.'”

Once staffers determine a particular ESN is just a waste of time, it’s almost impossible to get them to revisit it. And why should they, when they have better things to do?

Moreover, employees don’t rate or comment on articles, frustrating the IT and internal communications staffers who implemented the feature. When asked why they don’t comment, most employees will say, “The article didn’t have anything to do with me, so I didn’t have anything to say about it.”

The problem is that the introduction of these internal social media channels focused on deployment rather than adoption.

The case for using new technology has to focus on one of three benefits:

  1. It makes it easier to do something I’m already doing.
  2. It solves a problem I’ve been having.
  3. It lets me do something I’ve never been able to do before.

Simply introducing new technology without making the case for using it is a recipe for disaster. Yet this method—I call it the Godspeed Approach to a Technology Launch—is probably the most typical approach employed by businesses:

“Here you go everybody, a new collaborative network. It’s awesome. Godspeed.”

Compare that approach against one taken by one major city’s transportation agency. In this case, as reported by Deloitte’s John Hagel, the platform was deployed first to a targeted group that was dealing routinely with an inordinate number of disruptions to its routine. Here’s Hagel:

It was these grizzled older guys out in the maintenance yard. When they could see how this would relate to their job, how it wasn’t just something that management was putting on top of them as an added to-do, but that it could actually help them deal with this pain point, they got really excited about it.

The experience of a pilot group like this can used to market the network to the rest of the organization; employees could see how it related to their jobs, how it would improve efficiency and reduce friction and frustration.

Those “grizzled older guys” could become resources for others trying to figure it out. They can also be held up as examples, proof that you don’t need to be a Snapchat-loving millennial to get something out of this kind of tool.

That’s a strategic approach, one that focuses on adoption over deployment. The results of that, according to a study from the McKinsey Global Institute, can be a 25 percent improvement in productivity. After all, the time that information workers spend looking for answers to questions is the single biggest contributor to lost productivity among information workers.

What about external social networks?

The enhanced productivity that McKinsey cites doesn’t derive strictly from ESMs. In a fully networked organization, employees who can’t find an answer internally can turn to external networks such as LinkedIn—those same external networks that were found to be “very important” to only 7 percent of office-based respondents to Pew’s survey.

In a social business, employees networking with customers, suppliers and others derive value for the organization from those networks. Consider the benefits of a subject matter expert’s helping customers to solve a problem in a forum where others can see. Who wouldn’t want to do business with that company?

Sadly, the Pew survey also found that almost half the respondents said their employers blocked access to some websites. Presumably, Facebook and other social networks are high on the list of sites blocked (along with other obvious candidates, like porn sites). The same number of workers—46 percent—said their companies have rules about what employees can post or say alone.

That means 54 percent of companies don’t have social media policies.

Companies that restrict access to social media sites and ignore the need for institutional guardrails have yet to understand that their future success depends on informed, prudent employee engagement with stakeholders through these resources.

Many employers remain convinced that productivity will plummet if employees can spend time on these platforms during work hours. Keep in mind, though, the 25 percent productivity boost that McKinsey has determined, along with the Pew study’s finding that only 7 percent of workers feel their productivity has dropped as a result of the use of technology (including the Internet, email, and cellphones), while 46 percent believe they’re actually more productive.

It’s not a general fear of lost productivity or dire consequences arising from employee use of internal and external social media that is at the root of email’s dogged resilience and ESMs’ failure to make inroads. It’s a complete lack of messaging cultures that holds back the gains companies can get from employing these tools.

Message mission control

Who is in charge of messaging in your organization? Who is responsible for establishing and nurturing the messaging culture? (Culture is defined as “the way we do things around here,” so using email for everything is the messaging culture of most organizations.)

Is it human resources? Employee communications? Administrative services?

Odds are, nobody has responsibility for the messaging culture. With the Godspeed Approach in play, every employee gets to decide individually how they’ll use the phone, text messaging, email, fax machines, ESNs, voicemail and all the other messaging tools that have infiltrated the enterprise.

Hagel’s example of those grizzled older guys reflects what can happen when messaging is approached strategically, which it hardly ever is. There’s ample evidence of email’s inefficiencies:

  • A 2011 study found that employees in small and mid-size businesses spend half their workdays on email, with a third of their time going to contacting customers, partners or colleagues; finding information; or scheduling a meeting. Another 14 percent is wasted on duplicating information, such as forwarding emails (something they would never have to do if they used an ESN instead).
  • Another study found that employees check email 36 times an hour on average, or 288 times a day.
  • Yet another study determined that it takes employees more than 15 minutes to refocus on their tasks after checking email.
  • Email is frequently cited by employees as a source of frustration and job dissatisfaction.
  • A University of London study found that “workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”

Email isn’t dead (though voicemail is on its way out, fortunately); it still is a fairly effective tool for one-to-one messages that are lengthy or require attachments. For any kind of group messaging, though, it’s awful.

That’s why so few younger workers use it. An SDL study found millennials are far more likely to find content on social networks than by using search engines or email. If you have a teenager, you know how little they use email for anything, mainly because the other tools they’re accustomed to work better.

Just consider former Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center CEO Paul Levy’s explanation of his refusal to block access to social networks for his employees:

Limiting people’s access to social media in the workplace will mainly inhibit the growth of community and discourage useful information sharing. It also creates a generational gap, in that Facebook, in particular, is often the medium of choice for people of a certain age. I often get many useful suggestions from staff in their 20s and 30s who tend not to use email.

The transition from email/voicemail/fax to ESMs isn’t something companies should undertake simply because it’s cool or because someone believes the latest tools are always best. The evidence is overwhelming that the transition should be undertaken because it works and because efficiency and productivity will suffer without it.

Actually making that transition requires strategy, a focus on adoption, and a culture of messaging managed by someone with clear responsibility and resources to make it happen.

A version of this article first appeared on Shel Holtz’s blog.

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