Bigger isn’t better, and email is no way to work

I spend a lot of time these days trying to articulate the value of enterprise collaboration. This because I’m now working on a surprisingly good “social collaboration” product for enterprise. (Why surprising? Cause its out of the box functionality and usability are excellent (hours to deployment) and yet it scales like gangbusters. this is another story. check it out here).

Here’s the thing. Enterprises get big to benefit from economies of scale – the idea that the more you do something, the more efficient (cheap) you can make it. This works well for many things – manufacturing, transactional services like banking and insurance – businesses that produce things that are the same every time.

But a bigger, and ever growing, component of business success is about problem solving, idea sharing, strategy and insight. This is true in knowledge enterprises: Intelligence, Military, Technology, Medical, but its also true in manufacturing companies that need to come up with product strategies, marketing strategies and process improvements for those ever important cost savings.

This knowledge work does not benefit from efficiencies of scale – but it could. The concept of crowd-sourcing is ultimately the concept of scaling thinking.

There are a few fundamental issues, however that companies face that social collaboration tools can actually solve – without having to look into the future and take a leap of faith in the alchemy of collaboration.

1. Email is a really bad way for groups to communicate with one another.

Email is a really great way for two people to communicate, or for one party to send announcements to others, but if you’re looking to have a multi-way discussion, where multiple people are reviewing, revising, asking and answering questions, then email really stinks. I’m guessing that I don’t have to give you too many examples of why – but just think about the last time that you got edits on a doc from more than one person, had to integrate them and recirculate for approval. How easy waas that? And guess what? This is how most work is done in most businesses. This simple problem in itself is, perhaps, the very best reason to choose your favorite social collaboration tool and use it. Your entire company will thank you – once they get the hang of it.

2. Emailing documents around also stinks – nobody knows which is the latest version, those powerpoints are big, too easy to loose them.

again – the email stinks thing, but it really does. And maybe you have some document management software – how well is this solving this problem for you? Its part of the problem, but not nearly enough.

3. When I leave, I’m gone.

Most of what I know isn’t in a document – its in the conversations I have, the comments I make and the documents I create. When I’m gone, I can leave you a few gig of email and docs somewhere – good luck sorting through it all and finding any value in it. But if that’s all part of a collaborative community, it becomes searchable, it remains in context, and can be easily connected with other people in the company for continuity.

4. When I arrive I’m lost.

How long does it take you to figure out how things get done in a company? The org chart can help. Some. But its not nearly enough. Knowing who knows what and who does what is a matter of building relationships and trying things out, and having an effective network of people to query and being able to see the results of other people’s queries. Social collaboration tools can be an enormous help – without them, you’re basically stuck with email and the org chart. Maybe a “helpful” HR orientation. If you’re insanely lucky, you might have a mentor or a manager with 5 minutes time to spend with you.

5. I have no idea what you’re doing.

I go about my job and you go about yours. Sometimes we’re trying to solve the same or similar problems, searching for similar resources and compiling them together. Sometimes we’re communicating with customers, planning events, initiatives, research. And we don’t have any idea that there’s someone to share the work with, or to grab some great stuff from, because we have no idea what the similarities or synergies are. We might hear rumors through other people, and if we’re lucky, we hook up and get some value from the relationship. If we have time and luck. Businesses need to do better than depend on time and luck.

So – I love nothing more than to discuss the long term effects of collaborative cultures and make assurances about how you’ll innovate more and increase agility and capability once you’re fully down the road with social collaboration. But its hard to prove that’s what happens. And its also unnecessary.

All you need to know, is that email is the biggest waste of time – not because you’re getting unimportant messages, but because it doesn’t help get the necessary work done,  it doesn’t help people know what’s going on, and ideas, information and documents that travel via email get lost without fail.

Social Collaboration tools do not need to solve every challenge you’ve ever had, and they won’t. But they’ll get you out of working in your inbox. All it will take to prove it is a good days work with them.

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