These days we hear a lot about the promise of social business software to provide a better collaborative experience than email. Occasionally there’s a high profile story about an adventurous company that has decided to completely stop using email and instead move its collaboration and conversations to a new set of social tools. (Tech Company Implements Zero Email Policy.)
Certainly, many people feel oppressed by their email inbox. So when I met a colleague here at SAP (Mirko Friedrich, pictured below) who had embarked on a no-email experiment with his team, I thought it would be interesting to ask him a few questions about what the experience was like.
David: Tell me about yourself and what you do.
Mirko: My name is Mirko Friedrich and I am part of SAP’s Knowledge Management Competency Center, or KMCC. The KMCC acts as a service provider, improving enterprise productivity and value through project management, consulting and service delivery in Knowledge Management competencies such as Intranet Management, Social Media & Communities, Research & Information Management, Content Management, User Experience and Communication/Webinars. Within the KMCC I lead a team responsible for developing the strategy for SAP’s internal use of social media.
Back in 2005 I helped implement SAP’s corporate intranet. It started off primarily based upon the SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Portal product. But as new social technologies emerged, such as wikis, blogs, discussion forums and now new collaboration solutions such as SAP StreamWork, we have incorporated those into a wider intranet offering which we call the “SAP Employee Network.”
David: You decided to run an experiment: “What would happen if you and your team left email behind for an entire quarter and used social software instead?” You called this your “email diet.” What made you and your team decide to try this experiment? What was your motivation, your inspiration?
Mirko: It started when, during one of our executive steering committee meetings, an executive asked: “What is the difference between email and social media? Why use one or the other?” At the same time, I was reading about people switching from email to social media. So I thought, we are the social media team, we should see if this idea makes any sense, and if so, what kind of impact it could have. Also, our team was perfect for this test, because it is cross-functional with virtual team members from a variety of different departments and geographies. There are people on the team from all over the world, ranging from Germany, India, China, the east coast of the U.S., to the west coast of Canada.
For our experiment we decided that we wanted a tool that offered a private, gated area so that we could keep the discussion within our own team. It also had to have a social event stream, a so-called “feed.” We started by using a private SAP StreamWork activity which confined the audience of the social event stream to just the people who had been invited to that activity. Later on, we used the full-blown SAP StreamWork activities functionality for a variety of different purposes, such as helping run our regular team meetings more effectively, discussing ongoing hot topics and as an informational area for people to present to the rest of the group. And we were able to follow the action from all our activities in one event stream, which is very helpful functionality.
David: What was the experience like?
Mirko: The goal of the experiment was to improve transparency and efficiency by making our communication public. By taking conversations out of email, where they were often one-to-one, and making them one-to-many, or even better, many-to-many, I hoped to make our whole team’s collaboration more efficient and faster by ensuring people could find the information they needed and were interested in. I really felt that we achieved this. With people located in so many different time zones it is impossible to hold a team meeting at a time when all can attend. Yet the team members who couldn’t attend the meetings still felt like they were connected with the team, because they were part of the online conversations and thought processes.
And – using this approach I was able to reduce my personal email load by 90 percent!
I saved time by reducing and avoiding communication overlaps. Instead of sharing information multiple times, I shared information once with many colleagues and enabled them all at the same time. Most likely, some of them would never have asked for the information or wouldn’t even have known they could have asked for that information.
David: What things did you learn from this? What advice would you have for others considering making a similar change in their approaches to work and collaboration?
Mirko: We came to the conclusion that social media and email are complementary, not competitive – it is not a case of either/or. The advantage of email is that messages are available even when people are disconnected, and that you can be more confident that someone who needs to receive the message actually gets it. The pros of social media are that the overall communication is much more transparent and more likely to reach everyone who may be interested. Items can be found, discussed, refined and reused at a later stage.
Before we started the experiment, I asked the team if they wanted to change our way of communicating. I got their commitment first. That was very important. And I’d say the majority of the team really embraced the change. A few tolerated it, and only a very small number of people just didn’t adopt it at all.
As we were starting out, it took a conscious effort to change our habits. If someone sent an email which could be public, I would make a point of not answering via email, but instead replied via the SAP StreamWork feed in order to break the email chain.
However, the challenge of having a broader and more open communication is: “How do you filter the social noise?” Well, I think we can compare it with a library: you don’t complain that there are too many books. Instead, you get better at selecting and filtering, typing in keywords, subscribing to certain topics, and managing your information flow. I think that is the central paradigm for social media.
Lastly, we didn’t try to make every communication public: there is still a place for private or confidential communications.
What started off as an experiment has now become part of our day-to-day routine, our operational way of working together with people and dealing with information. Now when I start my work day, the first thing I do is open a browser and go to our Corporate Portal. The next thing I do is check SAP StreamWork.
This is just one story of one team’s quest for improved productivity through the use of a new social paradigm. They recognized that, as is often the case, the biggest challenge was not a technical challenge but rather a human challenge – to change their own habits and mindset as well as the way they worked with others – and they committed to each other at the beginning of this experiment to support this collective change. Along the way they discovered a few best practices:
- Email and social solutions have different strengths. One doesn’t necessarily replace the other – rather, use the right tool for the right purpose.
- When email is not being used efficiently, don’t get caught in the trap of continuing that conversation inefficiently in email. Restart it using social software.
- Don’t worry so much about information overload – instead, let the information receiver manage his/her information intake using smart filtering and query techniques.
Got comments? Know of other stories like this? I’d love to hear about them: @dbrockington.