When suggesting the application of social software like wikis, blogs, social networks or mircoblogging within the workplace you may have been confronted with the following argument: “Our employees are already very busy coping with their email and attending meetings. There is just no more time for any additional tools or information sources.” Or in the short version: “We already have enough tools that we have to take care of.” A classic, that still seems to reflect a quite common view and, moreover, can serve as a quite welcome justification for holding back any further action, including the effort to take a deeper look into the subject. In a way, I got reminded of the tale about a man cutting trees with a pocket knife. On the suggestion of going to town to buy a chainsaw he replied: “Sorry, I am too busy cutting trees.”

Regarding tools and processes I guess the primary concern should not be how busy they keep their users or how much care they require, but rather how much support they deliver for the daily work and for achieving the business objectives. Those are the questions to be asked and any search for improvements should also take “modern” alternatives into account, e.g. the use of social software.

Major prerequisites, however, are on the one hand a basic understanding ideally paired with personal experience and on the other hand a consideration not only of the risks but also of the potential of modern communication technology. Still quite common seems to be the notion that despite (or because of) the success on the internet the usage of social software within an organization is a “nice to have” additional activity, without any direct value creation – and at worst leads to distraction from the “real” work. Even though the contribution of information and communication technology might be hard to quantify, practical experience clearly shows the importance of the integration into the daily work processes as well as top management support. Hence, the starting points are the daily tasks and activities that the employees spend their office day on to contribute to the company’s success. This might also imply that the full potential of a new tool comes to bear only with some more or less fundamental process adjustments.

Needless to say, it is an illusion and neither the objective to completely substitute email and meetings. The discussion of ideas and issues as well as taking decisions will still require face to face presence from time to time. However, in some meetings the balance between effort and output can be put into question and brings up opportunities for looking at alternatives like the use of electronic platforms, e.g. wikis, blogs or forums. Likewise, in the foreseeable future the zero email organization will remain an illusion like the paperless office. However, the objective should be to return the communication tool “email” to its strength, respectively its initial purpose: the direct exchange of information between two or at most a small group of participants. Unfortunately, in many organizations email has expanded to a universal tool for all kind of communication needs leading to clogged inboxes and perceived information overload. Particularly when dealing with a large group of participants and a high volume of messages, social tools like forums or microblogs offer a far more efficient alternative, including the advantage of immediate transparency for new joiners and emergent connections between content elements (and people).

Conclusion: Social software can offer an important complement to established practices like email and meetings. Accompanied with proper organizational measures, the integration and incorporation can significantly play out on the long run leading to a far more effective management of information, efficient collaboration and an increase in employee satisfaction. Concrete examples can be found in the very worth reading report by Deloitte as well as various case studies on practical applications, e.g. here or at http://e20cases.org (mostly in German).