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Is the role of email under pressure from social media?

Social media tools seemingly offer greater agility for business communications, but are companies managing to keep up with Web 2.0?

For businesspeople who fail to keep an eye on the technology ball, the world must seem to be a truly frightening place. Adapting to computers and then the internet has proved enough of a challenge for some 'dinosaurs', but these tools barely scratching the surface in terms of 21st century IT. So imagine the look of horror on a technophobe's face when you dig a little deeper into Digital Britain. Web 2.0 has accelerated the pace of change, and understandably some people have found it impossible to keep up. No sooner have they figured out the intricacies of their email inbox, than something else has come along to keep add to the confusion.

The emergence of instant messaging and social networking – supported by the development of high-speed broadband networks - has had major impacts on business communications. Across many industries, new comms channels have altered the way people work – both internally and externally - rendering time and geographical barriers redundant. Modern businesses have been quick to recognise the cost-saving potential of new technology solutions, so it is no wonder social media is gaining significant traction.

According to analyst firm Gartner, changing work styles and the entry of more young people into the workplace are adding to the importance of social media in the workplace. The channel is expected to assume many of the roles of traditional communications tools – in particular email, which is seen as a slower and more rigid way of conversing. Indeed Gartner recently predicted that 20 per cent of employees will be using social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter as their main business communications hub by 2014. It noted that such tools facilitate "richer interactions" among people and expand collaboration to a broader level.

Monica Basso, research vice-president at Gartner, said that in the past organisations would only support collaboration through email and highly structured applications. But today, social paradigms are converging with email, instant messaging and presence, which is creating new collaboration styles, she claimed. In her view, the wider adoption of these capabilities, and increased competence among employees, will see the development of "a truly collaborative, effective and efficient workplace". Ms Basso suggested that, over time, the rigid distinction between email and social networks will erode as the former takes on many of the real-time attributes of the latter.
"The reality is that mobile collaboration will increase for all categories of workers, and organisations can either take the lead, or be led by their users," she stated. "The most progressive organisations won't be afraid to explore the innovative communications and collaboration models enabled by new devices and social services allow their employees to generate innovative ideas by experimenting with them." Ms Basso added that even during an economic downturn, businesses must be willing to innovate and embrace new practices in order to prepare for recovery.

But if there is a significant constraint to the social media-driven evolution of business communications, it could well be the attitudes of older employees. The majority of current business leaders learned their trade in a very different era, one of brick-sized mobile phones, clunky fax machines and lengthy corporate lunches. In many cases, those who see Web 2.0 as being an alien concept are the business leaders themselves, the people with the power and influence. They may recognise that social media has benefits in the workplace, but struggling to fully get their head round the concept, simply turn the other way.

By nature, social media is a somewhat divisive channel. As much as it is loved by many an IT-savvy upstart, others retain the right to treat it with great trepidation. 24/7 real-time communications are simply not everyone's cup of tea - the constant updates, quips and little fillips of information can be considered annoying, unprofessional and in some cases distasteful. And where such attitudes prevail at board level, the shutters are likely to come down. As Ms Basso stated, "technology is only an enabler; culture is a must for success."

Perhaps crucially, companies do not need to break the bank to dip their toe in the world of social media. It costs them very little to allow employees to communicate using channels they are comfortable with, aside from nominal costs spent on monitoring and security. Businesses are not being forced to commit major capital expenditure to a concept they are, for one reason or another, not entirely convinced about .

And as Gartner implies, things are changing, whether business veterans like it or not. Sooner rather than later, business attitudes will have to adapt to move with the times. Employees can continue to use email to communicate with each other, it may slow things down but the effects on overall output are hardly likely to be significant. But externally, the conversation is going social. Companies will not be forced to participate, but for the sake of their own bottom lines, they really should consider it.