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Should agencies dump e-mail for social networks?

The struggle for the heart of communication in the office seems to be heating up between e-mail and other forms of social collaboration. GCN reported last year about the CEO of a French company who was banning all e-mail from his corporate network in favor of more instant communications, even if it meant an old-fashioned phone call.

And the idea also has started to creep into U.S. government agencies, with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s internal social network pilot, according to GovExec. In fact, the idea goes back a few years. The Marines started using Jabber IM in 2008.

NNSA’s network, called OneVoice, is a collaboration platform that includes Web conferencing, instant messaging and other tools, and can accommodate separate working groups or divisions.

But will it replace e-mail altogether?

The problem I think some government agencies are having is they are thinking of communications in terms of a dichotomy. In this picture, it’s a world where users can either have a vanilla cone with e-mail or a chocolate cone with social networking. The truth is that these technologies work best when you are able to enjoy them as a swirl.

Instant messaging, whether in tradition IM form or in social platform messages, beats e-mail in a lot of ways. GCN has been using Yammer to successfully keep reporters in touch with one another for a few years now, and even though I was one of the last holdouts, I now see the value of such instant interactions. For one thing, as long as the users are trained not to put a lot of fluff into the system, you end up with a stream of usable data that can help with your job. There’s no spam, viruses, shopping offers or other junk to slow you down. And I can speak directly with my assignment editors if needed with no waiting during tight deadlines.

The security angle is probably a big attraction for the NNSA — and the Energy Department overall, since the pilot could expand to other agencies — and it’s a good one. But internal communications does have its limits. For one, everybody needs to be inside the system if you want to talk with them. I can’t chat with my sources using the company-provided IM system because none of them has an account. IM also is much less effective if a user is offline. I can post a note to them within the system, but basically need to wait until they log-on to get a chance of a response. With e-mail, the letter is delivered to their inbox, and they should see it as soon as they turn their computer back on. Plus, lots of people shut down their browser and most programs at night, but leave their e-mail up, so they might see an e-mail message sooner.

Just as e-mail did not kill telephone conversations or even regular postal mail — at least, not altogether — internal social networks have not been effective in killing e-mail. It adds another tool into the belt of savvy workers, and I highly recommend adding it into agencies. But just like how neither a hammer nor a screwdriver is perfect for every single job, you have to be smart and use the best program for the circumstance.

Posted by John Breeden II on Nov 29, 2012 at 9:39 AM


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