Microblogging Will Marginalize Corporate Email

In case you missed it last week, Google CEO Eric Schmidt had this to say about the microblogging service Twitter:

Speaking as a computer scientist, I view all of these as sort of poor man’s email systems. In other words, they have aspects of an email system, but they don’t have a full offering. To me, the question about companies like Twitter is: Do they fundamentally evolve as sort of a note phenomenon, or do they fundamentally evolve to have storage, revocation, identity, and all the other aspects that traditional email systems have? Or do email systems themselves broaden what they do to take on some of that characteristic?

At first blush, this seemed like an example of Google not ‘getting it’ when it comes to Twitter (see the comments to the linked blog post above). But I think he’s actually on to something. It is a new way of posting notes about what you’re doing, but it also has a lot of communications usage via @replies and direct messages (DMs).

Reflecting both on Schmidt’s statement, and my own use of Yammer at my company, I’m seeing that microblogging is slowly replacing a lot of my email activity.

As more companies take up microblogging with services like Yammer, Socialcast, Present.ly and SocialText Signals, employee communications amongst employees will both increase and divert away from email. Something like this:

microblogging-marginalizes-email

Socialcast’s Tim Young said this about email:

Email is dead. If your company is relying on email for communication and collaboration, your company is walking dead in this new economy.

Being the CEO of Socialcast, that’s not a surprising statement. But I think he’s more right than wrong.

The shift I describe applies regardless of the microblogging application used. Since I’m actually familiar with Yammer as a user, I’ll talk about its features in the context of this shift.

Yammer Follows the Innovator’s Dilemma Path

A useful context for thinking about Yammer versus corporate email is Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. Generally, the premise is that incumbent companies need to grow and increase the functionality of their products. This increases the products’ complexity and cost, but also increases margins. But as the incumbents are doing this, it opens an opportunity at the lower end of functionality for new companies to come in and attack the incumbents’ base. From Wikipedia, here’s a graphic that demonstrates the concept:

innovators-dilemma-disruption-graph

A useful way to think about the Innovator’s Dilemma in the enterprise software space comes from this blog post, Enterprise Software Innovator’s Dilemma. Existing vendors expand the functionality of their products, heavily relying on the requests of large customers. Over time, this has the effect of creating a robust, highly functional and more expensive offering. This trend is what opens the door for new vendors to come in.

Let’s consider Yammer in this context. Simple microblogging runs along the “low quality use” in some ways. At least in terms of the feature set. But it certainly takes “use case share” away from email.

If all you could do was make public notes, that’s the end of the story. Microblogging does not replace email. But these guys are advancing their product, and are rising up the performance axis.

Here is what Yammer now offers:

  • Behind the firewall installation
  • Public notes
  • @replies
  • DMs
  • Groups
  • Private groups
  • File attachments
  • Favorites (a form of bookmarking)
  • Tagging
  • Conversation threading
  • Unlimited character length (i.e. not limited to 140 characters)
  • Search

Look at that list. When you think about your own internal email usage, what ‘s missing? Folders or the Gmail equivalent of tags seem to be something for the down the road. I’m not an IT manager, so I’m sure there are some heavy duty infrastructure aspects of Microsoft Exchange/Outlook and Lotus Notes that are not there. Thus, Yammer still has the insurgent, disruptor profile relative to corporate email.

But don’t underestimate that. There’s what IT knows is needed behind the scenes. and then there’s what the users actually do when given the different applications.

Expanding Communications, Marginalizing Email

Microblogging’s premise is that public proclamations of what you’re doing and information that you find are a new activity for people, and they have value. Information is shared much more easily and in-the-flow of what we’re all doing anyway. In an office setting, I continue to find the way Dave Winer describes it quite useful: narrating your work.

This use case is what promises to dramatically increase communications among employees. As we’re seeing with Twitter’s explosive growth, it takes time for people to grok why they should microblog. But once they “get it”, it takes off.

So services like Yammer have your attention as you post updates and read what others post. In reaction to what someone posts, you hit the Reply button. You’re having a conversation that others can see, and join in if they want. You decide to have separate conversation with someone in this context. Do you open up your email? Or just click “Private Message” to someone? I’m willing to bet you’ll do the latter.

Which starts the marginalization of corporate email. Why? Because a lot of what’s going to generate interactions is occurring right on that microblogging app you’re looking at. It’s the most natural thing to act in-the-flow and use that application in lieu of email. Well-designed microblogging applications are also quite seductive in terms of ease-of-use.

As I’ve written before, email’s role changes in this scenario. The logical end use cases are:

  • Notifications
  • External communications

This isn’t something that’s imminent. Email is quite entrenched in daily workflow, older generations aren’t likely to stop using it and internal microblogging is still nascent.

But no one said the Innovator’s Dilemma plays out over the course of a couple years. It will take time. But watch the trends.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

One Thing Social Software Needs: The Guaranteed Delivery Button

At the start of January, Jennfier Leggio and I launched the 2009 Email Brevity Challenge. The goal is to reduce the length of emails, with an eye toward migrating a lot of what’s in them elsewhere.

Well, January is over. Time to see how I did:

email-stats-jan-09

As you can see, I’ve got some work to do. First, my average email weighs in at 164 characters. 164 characters…hmm, doesn’t sound so bad but it’s pretty far beyond 140 characters.

Even worse, 41% of my emails are beyond the bar set for the email brevity challenge. One positive? Check out that median length – my heart is in the right place in terms of brevity.

But I can do better.

Looking at my emails, I see an obvious candidate for cutback. Seven of those 140+  character emails are essentially links with commentary of snippets.

Say what? You work for a social bookmarking company man! And you’re emailing links?!!

Well, yes. But I also bookmark them. Let me explain. I bookmark plenty of links for my own purposes. And true to social bookmarking’s purpose, other people can find them as well, which is better for discussions around the information.

Some of these bookmarks are more than useful information I want for recall later or for others to find in their research. Some are relevant to things that we’re working on right now. They provide context to product, development and marketing efforts.

Those bookmarks need to have higher visibility than typical links do.  And a problem with only bookmarking a link is that many people won’t see it who should.

That’s what email provides: guaranteed delivery. Everyone is using the app, and everyone checks their email. So I know the link + commentary will be seen. What social software needs is an equivalent mechanism.

Social Software Options for Guaranteed Delivery

In fact, many apps do have such guaranteed delivery mechanisms. For instance, you can think of the @reply on Twitter as a form of that. Although even then, it requires someone checking that tab. So TweetReplies will actually email you when someone uses your @name in a tweet.

As I wrote before, email’s evolving role in social media will be more notification, less personal communication. Email is still a centralized place for all manner of notifications and it has that lovely guaranteed delivery aspect.

So what are alternatives for emails inside companies?

Inside my company, I actually have three alternatives to emailing the links with lots of commentary”

Connectbeam: As I mentioned, a simple bookmark has no guarantee of visibility. But the app does include email (and RSS) notifications of new content. You can subscribe to emails of individuals’ and Groups’ activity in real-time, or get a daily digest of those options plus keyword-based notifications. So what I can do is set up a Group, call it “Email Worthy”. I then have all my colleagues subscribe to real-time notifications of activity in that Group. Voila! I add a note to my bookmark, save it to the Group and I know everyone will get it.

Confluence: Another option is to create a wiki page for these entries. I can put longer form commentary in the pages, include a link and tag them. Since Connectbeam automatically sucks Confluence wiki pages into its database, these individual wiki pages would be as good as a bookmark. I could then email a link to the wiki page (using a bit.ly URL), going Twitter style with a brief intro.

Yammer: Yammer now has Groups. Which is something people have been wanting with Twitter. You can publish a message in Yammer (a “yamm”?) to just a particular Group. Yammer has nicely added an email notification feature for Groups. So similar to what I described above for Connectbeam, we can create a Group on Yammer called “Email Worthy”. Everyone can join the Group and elect to recieve email notifications when new yamms come through.  I can post the link + commentary, and be assured of guaranteed delivery.

One problem with using Yammer this way is that information put there is separate from the wiki entries and bookmarks we have. So people would have to check two places for information. As I wrote over on the Connectbeam blog, that creates a de facto silo.

It’s February, A New Month

I’m going to experiment a bit with this. Of course, I need to get my colleagues to subscribe to email notifications for Connectbeam. But I’ll just tell them, “do that or I’ll email ya!” And I’ll try the Confluence wiki approach as well.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

*****

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My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 013009

From the home office in Tampa Bay, FL…

#1: PETA ad that uses sex to sell vegetables (yeah, you read that right) is rejected for Superbowl. See for yourself: http://bit.ly/1xVgO5

#2: NYT piece on Twitter & David Pogue’s request for help w/ hiccups: http://bit.ly/1oI72B BTW – SUGAR. Teaspoon of sugar makes ’em go away.

#3: I’m already part of the Jeff Bezos fan club, nice post here about how he pursues root cause analysis: http://bit.ly/aJtH

#4: Guys at The Content Economy post: Three good presentations on Enterprise 2.0 http://bit.ly/3slVoL Honored to be there w/ @jowyang & AIIM

#5: Enterprise 2.0’s job is to increase the frequency with which those who need find those who know. Among many jobs.

#6: RT @ghornet About to present a business plan – must focus on not using e2.0 buzzwords… afraid someone will yell BINGO!

#7: One thing with emails…you have to re-earn the right to arrive in the in-box every time you send them. Unlike RSS feeds.

#8: Chrysler removed its “Thank You America” post (for the bailout). Became a rallying point for public venting. Background: http://bit.ly/bp0z

#9: Odd to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies, realizing he’s our governor. Bad guys were easier to handle than Sacramento lawmakers.

#10: And so it is settled…after 14 games of the card game War with my 4 y.o. son Harrison, I am victorious, 8 to 6.

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 010909

From the home office in Chicago, IL…

#1: RT @natenash203 Back to project planning for BPM implementation @ Afghanistan Ministry of Commerce. {Whoa! BPM? Things progressing there}

#2: “Businesses needed to have 20-30% engagement rates” by employees in social software to achieve ROI http://bit.ly/3aTs #e2.0

#3: RT @technacea OH: “I don’t have a blog – I guess I’m just a nobody”

#4: @LLiu Good one Lawrence. Bookmarked “The Emerging Math/Rules of Social Networks – Magic Numbers” http://bit.ly/S4J5

#5: Atlassian blog takes up the 2009 Email Brevity Challenge: http://bit.ly/TEWg

#6: What would be nice: Summize (er…Twitter search) tracks a conversation. It’d be cool to have a single link to that conversation.

#7: Note – if you make a comment on my blog and mistype/misspell something, never fear. I’ll go in and fix it.

#8: Slate’s nice historical perspective of newspapers’ reactions to disruptive technologies http://bit.ly/JE3I including the 1947 fax machine.

#9: RT @jimmyfallon @joeypfeifer I hope to. I want to see how we can play with [Twitter] on the show maybe. So far, I’m addicted.

#10: Runner geeks, you hear about Palm’s new iPhone competitor The Pre, do you think “Steve Prefontaine”? Can I get a witness?

*****

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The 2009 Email Brevity Challenge

2009-email-brevity-challenge

Are you on Twitter? Have you perfected the art of communicating a lot in a few characters? Well how about putting that talent to good use, making the lives of your co-workers better ?

I’m talking about…

THE 2009 EMAIL BREVITY CHALLENGE

What’s that? Simple, really:

Keep your company emails to 140 characters or less.

Now let me tell you a little more about this.

It All Started with a Tweet

I trade tweets with Jennifer Leggio (@mediaphyter). Well, one morning we had this exchange:

Hutch: Are you a long form twitterer? I often hit 140+ characters in my tweets, and spend time cutting them back.

Jennifer: Yup. I think it’s made me more succinct in other mediums, too.

Hutch: You’re right about Twitter making us more succinct. You know where I’m seeing it most? In my emails, of all things.

Jennifer: I wonder if I should challenge myself to only send 140-character emails in 2009? hehe

Hutch: That’d actually be a great challenge. Make your emails max out at 140 characters. Recipients would be thankful.

Jennifer: Let’s do it. In some cases (i.e. work emails requiring tons of back-up) it might be hard, but I’ll shoot for 50 percent.

From that conversation, Jennifer wrote Micro-emailing: The 2009 email brevity challenge on her ZDNet blog Feeds. As she says there:

We understand that some emails need to be longer than 140 characters (I’m not sure my boss would appreciate it if I sent her multiple 140-character emails when she needs a detailed project report). For the rest of the emails, however, we’re going to try and give our co-workers’ weary eyeballs a break. More than that, we are going to start logging these communications and tracking monthly the average number of a characters we use in our sent work-related emails. I’ll post monthly reports here on this blog.

And there you have it.

Reducing Our Dependence on Corporate Email

Consider this little resolution another strike against our overreliance on email. IBM’s Luis Suarez has been quite an advocate for reducing the volume of emails inside companies (see Giving up on Work e-mail – Status Report on Week 46 (Living without Email – One Man’s Story. Are you Next?). He has an ongoing quest to eliminate email in his daily job. He actually did that during Christmas week, as he reports:

It has taken me 46 weeks, but I have finally made it! I have finally been able to prove the point that you can go by a week without using e-mail, but social software, and still get the job done!

And upon seeing this challenge for email brevity, he offered this:

@bhc3 Absolutely! And more than happy as well to help promote it as part of the continued weekly progress reports s haring further insights

If you’re forced to be briefer with your emails, there are a couple outcomes. First, those epic emails are reduced. That probably is welcome news to a lot of workers. Second, it highlights the proper place for many email discussions: wikis, blogs, Yammer, forums, etc. You can use email more for notifications and links to the place where the longer form thinking/discussion/collaboration is occurring.

To participate in this initiative, you only need to do three things:

  1. Add a comment to Jennifer’s blog post
  2. Keep tabs on the character count of your emails (I’ll probably paste ’em in Word, run a character count)
  3. Keep it light, low pressure. It’s an interesting experiment.

I particularly encourage you to try this out if you’re interested in Enterprise 2.0. What better way to put into practice what we all see as the future of social software inside organizations?

And drop me a comment if you’ve got any other thoughts or suggestions.

*****

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My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 122608

From the home office in the North Pole…

#1: Guy tweeting after the plane crash was amazing (http://bit.ly/w6d6). Instant news. My non-twittering wife’s reaction? Eye-roll, “why?”

#2: Are you a long form twitterer? I often hit 140+ characters in my tweets, and spend time cutting them back.

#3: @mediaphyter You’re right about Twitter making us more succinct. You know where I’m seeing it most? In my emails, of all things.

#4: Enterprise 2.0 question: How important is it that things go viral inside a company?

#5: Gartner Hype Cycle for Social Software Aug 2008 – full 50-page report: http://bit.ly/ZVf6 (pdf)

#6: Some really great pix of…parents throwing their kids in the air (http://bit.ly/N5ul). This is something I do w/ my 2 y.o. girl, need pix!

#7: Listening to 7 y.o. piano prodigy on NPR, Ethan Bortnick http://bit.ly/80LW Funny to hear accomplished piano w/ a little boy’s personality.

#8: TwitterCounter has a revenue model. You pay to be a featured user on their home page/twitter user stats pages. $130/week http://bit.ly/Ve6N

#9: Hey…conservative commentator/Fox personality Michelle Malkin is now tweeting. http://twitter.com/michellemal… And the bus keeps rollin’

#10: I now await my kids’ going to sleep, so my Santa duties can get underway. I’ve got a doll house and a race track to assemble.

*****

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If You Had to Choose One Form of Digital Communication, What Would It Be?

tin-can-phone

Via Mark Hillary on Flickr

That’s a funny question isn’t it? It is something of a parlour game question. Yet it’s a marvelous way to analyze the features of different communication modes, and to think about what we really need from our communications.

The inspiration for this blog post was a discussion with Chris White and others over on FriendFeed. The discussion centered around the merits of email, Twitter and other forms of communication. In the middle of the discussion, Chris asked:

If you had to choose one medium of digital communication, which one would you choose?

Well that, of course, got a good round of arguments. And it’s a good question.

Here are some modes that come to mind. I’m going to hold off on including mobile phones in the discussion. We’ll take voice as a given.

  • Email
  • Instant messaging
  • SMS text
  • Twitter
  • Social networks (i.e. Facebook)
  • FriendFeed

The table below covers several considerations for these different communication modes:

digital-comm-modes-summary-of-characteristics

The characteristics listed above are those that came to mind in considering digital communications. They’re not tech-geek stuff (like bandwidth, architectural factors, etc.). More a list of things that lay people would experience.

A few notes about the table before I pick my communication mode:

Email is both persistent and searchable. Those are valuable characteristics, as Joelle Nebbe notes during the FriendFeed discussion. But they have to be in your in-box to be accessible, because they are private.

IM and SMS text are pretty similar. One happens on a phone, the other happens on PC client. Or both happen on the phone, I suppose. LOL kthxbai!

Twitter can be both private (DMs) and public (default). The 140 character limit is genius to some people, frustrating to others.

Social Networks are private? Doesn’t that fly in the face of all the media about embarrassing pix on Facebook? I know information can leak out, but that’s not the default setting. For instance, see if you can find the most recent blog post I wrote on Facebook Notes about my kids. Unless you’re my friend there, you can’t access it. It’s private.

Social Networks are private in terms of their in-site messaging. Like Twitter DMs.

FriendFeed is public or private. Privacy can be a setting for all of your stream, or you may live in a Room with restricted access. It’s one-to-many only. No way to reach out talk to a specific user directly.

My Own Selection

As I wrote in the discussion on FriendFeed, if pressed I’d have to select Twitter. Why?

  • DM allows private one-to-one conversations (unless you’re Robert Scoble)
  • @reply acts as an in-box for public tweets
  • Searchability is very important and valuable
  • Public tweets are a different form of communication, one that I’m increasingly valuing as a way to cast a larger net for information and feedback

On the FriendFeed discussion, Chris White noted that email supports file attachments, while Twitter doesn’t. But as I wrote in yesterday’s post about the Atlassian Confluence wiki, I could live with my documents being in a centralized web space. I’d just tweet (Yammer?) a link to the document. It’s not perfect. There are times you need to get a document to someone who may not have access to a private web space. That would be a pain. But the other advantages of Twitter are enough for me to live with the pain.

A word about FriendFeed. If they ever decide to support direct messaging and something similar to the @reply tab of Twitter, then they would become my communication mode of choice. There is so much more that can be done there via different media types, along with Rooms and Lists.

Those are my thoughts. How about you? Email has survived this long, and has a lot of well-designed features. Maybe that would be yours? Did I miss some key points about the various modes? Gloss over a deficiency too easily? Maybe there’s another form of digital communication I missed?

Take a second and say which communication mode you would choose in the poll below (RSS reader – click over quickly to select one).

*****

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