The Deluge of Negativity Surrounding Email
Email is the new pony express. Email is a distraction. Email is for old people. These are sweeping complaints, but they have compelling nuggets of truth under the surface. For instance, while transmitting an email isn’t slow, it often requires painstaking composition to convey the correct tone. (You may be staring at a blinking cursor thinking: Too terse? Too perky?  Too "Bill Lumbergh?") Email is an interrupter, too, because we allow it to be – we’re slaves to the little notification box that floats up from the corner of our screens announcing incoming mail. (And each email, until opened, is on a level playing field in terms of relevance). As we “toggle” between tasks, constant focusing and re-focusing makes the brain go slushy. After each distraction, some researchers say it takes as long as 25 minutes to dig back into the original task. And it’s true that since much of email communication is one-on-one, there’s a wealth of information that remains “locked up” in inboxes.

Yet very few have suggested 21st Century upgrades to the veritable fire swamp that is your inbox. A few companies have aggressively decreed internal “no email” policies, but the best serious alternative I’ve seen thus far is a series of private social platforms that look a lot like Facebook.

Yammer is Just One of Many "Private/Enterprise Social Networks"
This year at TempWorks, we’ve started using Yammer – Microsoft’s answer to email overload. Two months after our company’s first user joined, 91 of the 100+ employees had jumped on board. We can join groups that pertain to our departments and visit those “feeds” at-will. Though the content itself is similar to what may travel via email, what sets the tool apart is its visual, bulletin board-like organization and public nature.

I recently talked with our TempWorks Support Center Supervisor Kevin Prow about why it was implemented.

“I was getting too many questions directly, and I was repeating the same answer multiple times to multiple people. [We’re using Yammer] mostly to ease the burden of my IM load and to allow others to answer collaboratively and to learn from the questions of others,” says Kevin, who estimates that 50% of his incoming mail is irrelevant.

An Answer to the Reply-All Nightmare
Another way Yammer could outpace email is in the context of “revisioning.” When a bunch of individuals need to collaborate to decide on a single thing, all too often the threads of reply-alls and CC’s add up to a nightmarish snowball of several variants, all rolling separately. It’s much easier to offer input when the responses are all updated in one spot.

Prow has also used it as a platform for optional department-wide polls. They’ve been mildly successful so far, but he expects the responses to increase as the site becomes a familiar go-to.

Should Company Networks Really Be "Social?"
Though there isn’t really a consensus about what this type of collaborative communication tool will be called, many (such as Chatter) are throwing “social” into the title, as in “private social network” or "enterprise social network."  But would they be necessarily social in nature, in a strictly professional environment?  While some companies think the social aspect is not to be feared (and even increases productivity), others are clear about laying down ground rules.

“I gave them the directive not to use it that way. It’s not Facebook… I don’t want to wade through pictures of somebody’s dog to find what I really need to see,” says Prow.

"Noise" and Barriers Still Remain
Think about how the platform could grow in usefulness over time. All of the information posted on Yammer is only a keyword search away. However, Prow cautions, “It will increase in efficiency to a point, but it has its own limitations, because it doesn’t help filter out the noise. What I mean by that is if I have to sort through 600 conversations about payroll, I might not be able to find the relevant question and answer.”  (Although apparently there is a function that allows users to categorize and tag posts, which may help if people use it correctly).

I also wonder whether the barrier to communication is lower or higher on these networks.  On the one hand, it feels less formal than a direct email, and less like you’re bothering someone. On the other, users could be intimidated by the public nature of the posts, fearing their question will reveal their ignorance.

“They’re more apt to post what’s on their mind, but they may also be intimidated and think others might think their question is obvious...” says Prow. “So it’s also stigmatized. It balances out.”

Collaboration and the Future
Here at TempWorks, we’re not regarding it as email replacement. But perhaps it's representative of a major shift away from private one-on-one messaging to open, collaborative environments. Project-based solutions like Asana are also exploding, as they provide a centrally located site for employees to assign projects to each other, chart their progress, and tag them as finished. I imagine this kind of tool cuts back on email, too (Messages such as When is that project due again? would be unnecessary). They're technological solutions to technology-created problems.

Tags: TempWorks, Business, Email, Kevin Prow, Fire swamp, Private social network, Yammer