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Building a Social Business: Start with Email Changes

Social business is all great in theory and recent studies show that executives now think it is a key strategic initiative for them… but that doesn’t help those tasked with figuring it all out know where to start.

I often say that people come to communities for content and stay for relationships. This is true regardless of the type of community, but internally relationships already exist so internal communities need to focus on deepening existing relationships and extending beyond to form relevant new relationships around the organization. The dynamic of communities and the unique context of organizations requires organizations to both change where information is consumed and interacted with and change conversational habits. One great place to start is to look at how email is used in your organization.

What I recommend organizations do first is the following:

  1. Survey people regarding the percentage of their emails that fall into the following categories: Corporate communications, general functional FYI, project related notes and status, questions or inquiries, confidential discussions between a small group, document revisions, scheduling, or mailing lists (including non-project related distribution lists), alerts and other.
  2. Analyze the inboxes of 25 people more closely (and make sure to include people with different roles and responsibilities) to see if that aligns with the survey results and dig in to understanding the specifics of how those individuals manage their email.
  3. Move all distribution lists that are not confidential to blogs (i.e. change the email address of the distribution list to post to an internal blog). People can subscribe and unsubscribe themselves thereby both reducing the need for an IT resource to do this and for individuals to manage the resulting emails. This likely saves hours a week for every individual in the organization because they no longer have to review, discard and/or delete a huge number of emails. It has the added bonus of centralizing the discussion and categorizing it for later reference. That’s ROI you can calculate. (#employees * average time to manage distribution list emails * average fully burdened hourly cost) + IT hours per week to manage distribution lists * average fully burdened hourly IT employee cost)
  4. Give all project teams a closed group and encourage them to work out loud – updating the group whenever the have accomplished something or run into a question. Cancel team status meetings. Schedule meetings only when an issue cannot be resolved through the group conversation in the network. That’s ROI you can calculate. (#employees * hours each week in project meetings * average fully burdened hourly employee cost)
  5. Turn off or discourage people from using cc or bcc features on email (you could start a mock wall of shame that encourages people to post offenders, for example – just keep it fun & light). Encourage anything that needs a cc to go into a social network blog or discussion board. Discourage bcc’s almost entirely.
  6. Turn off or discourage emailing documents. They should all go into a shared space.
  7. Encourage people to answer questions that they receive through any channel in a blog post. That way they only have to answer the question once and it is discoverable for others. This is a great win for subject matter experts and executives who get a huge number of requests on a daily basis.
  8. Start retraining people on how to use email – for confidential information (and that should be done carefully), for scheduling, for personal notes and for accepting email from external contacts, some of which should be automatically forwarded to a networked internal space.

If you are following, all of these steps are about getting smarter with how we share existing information. The cost of managing this information today is mostly hidden. It’s the hours each of us spends reviewing, organizing and deleting emails and the hours we spend answering the same questions over and over again. This waste is not really ‘seen’ by the organization because it’s been absorbed primarily by individuals in their ‘free’ time. The accountants – and often therefore executives – don’t really see this waste so it goes ignored. But it is making people crazy and if you can accomplish all of the above, it will get people more comfortable with social software tools and dynamics and it will give them real relief. And then, you can focus on where real, strategic changes can happen:

  • Connecting people working on similar problems who don’t know each other
  • Surfacing solutions and existing content faster, saving time and energy for new innovation
  • Crowdsourcing ideas, gaps, risks, opportunities, messaging and advocacy

We need to fix what is currently broken for individuals before we can expect them to contribute back to our organizations in meaningful ways. Email inboxes are ground zero.

Kevin Jones has some great videos that brilliantly highlight this issue:



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