There have been a few news stories recently about a French IT company called Atos that has announced their intention to replace email with Social Networking and Instant Messaging over the next few years. The company has 74,000 users and claims that most of the current email is either worthless or it is spam. Whether the company pulls it off is yet to be seen, and some people may argue that it is simply a publicity stunt (I'm one of those people). Perhaps the Social Networking landscape may change drastically in the next few years to make this practical and feasible, but it's not ready "today".
Personally, I believe email is a business critical service that will remain viable for quite some time. I don't just say that because our company is in the email consulting business. I strongly believe that email communication is more efficient and practical than other forms of communication. I've compiled a small list of reasons why I believe that Social Media and Instant Messaging is not a practical replacement for email. On the flip side, you could think of this list as a set of obstacles that would need to be overcome to have a successful implementation of this strategy. If Atos actually pulls this off successfully, I'd like to know how they overcome these factors.
1. Organizational Capabilities
With email, you can create folders for different topics, customers, vendors, and people in general. You can put relevant stuff in those folder and reference it when ever needed. You can search by date and see specific message threads, keep things separate, and track things that need to taken care of at a later date. With Instant Messaging or Social Networks, you would lose most of that functionality. With current implementations of both, any communication with a single person is processed in a single thread that is difficult to break out of. How could you realistically manage that? How could you find something related to one topic when it's mixed in with all of your other conversations? How do you find stuff and organize thoughts that you need to take care of? How can you create any type of work flow or task structure? You can't. It's impossible, or at best, very cumbersome.
2. Business Operations
As an IT consulting company, we communicate extensively with our customers through email. It's vital. Project needs, quotes, status updates, and more can be done via email to save tons of time. It also eliminates lengthy and time consuming phone calls and face to face meetings. When I place orders for software, I email the purchase order to our distributor. I don't have to stand around waiting for a confirmation. I can go on with business and I know that an email confirmation will be on its way soon. Eliminating email would halt our business. Period. With email, it doesn't matter what platform the recipient uses. It could be GroupWise, Exchange, Gmail, or Lotus. If I need to send an email, I can type in the email address and the message gets there. That's not currently an option with Instant Messaging or Social Networking, and expecting customers, suppliers, vendors, and business contacts to conform to a specific platform is unrealistic.
3. Visibility and Accountability
With email, the messages stay in my inbox until I move them or delete them. They do not scroll off the screen. They do not disappear into oblivion if I haven't logged in for a few days. Messages don't display and/or hide based on frequency of contact with any specific person. They stay put, right where I want them, until I can review them and take action. While anybody's inbox can fill up and become difficult to manage, the fact is, the messages are still there until the user takes action on them. With Social Media or Instant Messaging, life goes on and new content is always pushing old content out. It would be difficult if not impossible to ensure that all messages are received and acted upon.
4. Security and Confidentiality
Social Media is always changing. Facebook, for example, constantly changes the way information is shared/gathered. They do this to optimize their profits; protecting your information is not even in the equation. It's a free service and you generally accept that nothing you post is to be considered private or confidential. Even in a social networking model aimed more towards business people, such as Linked-In, it would be very difficult to perform business transactions with one person while restricting access from others. Managing the confidentiality of customer or vendor information would be a nightmare. With email, it's pretty easy to ensure that myself and the recipient are the only people able to access the content of the message. And if I need better control, I can encrypt the messages end to end.
5. Sharing data files
Before email, it's true we had other ways to share data. You could pass a paper around in an inter-office envelope, FTP a file to someone, print and fax an order, or Fed-Ex important documents overnight. But the truth is, email has become the de facto standard for sharing files. This is especially true when sharing documents with people at other companies. It's simple, inexpensive, and you can get almost any type of document to someone instantly. They will have it when they are ready to use it. Instant Messaging is terrible at file sharing. You must have the person on your contact list, and the recipient must be online at that same moment to accept your files. It's not very easy or convenient. A typical Social network is geared more towards audio/video files, and trying to share business documents just doesn't work. It's true, there are corporate platforms that are designed more for document and file sharing. Microsoft has SharePoint, and Novell has Vibe. Both products are pretty good at what they do, but there are also limitations that could make it difficult for conducting business. For example, you still need user accounts for anybody to participate, and you have to be able to manage permissions and access controls, which adds an extra layer of administration.
These are just 5 big reasons why I believe email could never be replaced by Social Media and/or Instant Messaging. However, there are quite a few other reasons that I didn't even go into. What about compliance issues, regulation, legal considerations, archiving, monitoring, auditing, control, support, and more. In summary, email has evolved drastically since it was first developed. And it will continue to evolve. Social Networking and Instant Messaging may become better. Or they may become better integrated into email, which may be the ultimate solution. But they won't be able to replace email.