Growing social business from the inbox out


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GrowingSocBus_Infographic_linkedToday’s social tools for communication can make collaboration easier, and give you the ability to quickly find information in the right context. So how do organizations get their workforce to adopt new social technologies? Begin your social business transformation when you turn the familiar email experience into a launchpad for socially-enabled business processes.

Being a more collaborative organization might seem a long way from how you work just now. Many organizations use group mail boxes or task mail boxes to provide a collaborative, i.e. multi-user, approach to handling email. One of the difficulties with such setups is of course that multiple people are looking at the same information and because the basic user interface is intended to be single user, there are generally no controls to track actions, who has seen what, etc.

On an engagement several years ago a client was migrating from Outlook to Notes and found that their users were complaining about the behavior of Notes compared to Outlook when multiple users looked at the same group mail file. In Outlook an unread email appeared unread for all users. When someone, anyone, looked at that email, the unread email showed up as read. But it showed up as read for all users. In IBM Notes, that same email would remain unread for you until you read it. Fundamentally IBM Notes is working correctly. It’s showing you what YOU have read, or not read. The customer said that they didn’t know whether someone had actioned the email in Notes because it always showed up as unread, whereas Outlook would show that someone had read it. To my understanding that customer had attempted to shoehorn what needed to be a collaborative process into Outlook’s functionality but with a fundamental flaw. Outlook could give the impression that something was being done about it, whereas Notes continued to show what you had or had not read.

The truth of the situation is that for the foreseeable future most organizations will continue their transformation from paper and fax-based messages to email. Yes there is a transition to interconnected systems to avoid messaging like this, but we’re still in a transition and will be for a long time to come. We need therefore to start with the inbox when we want to improve how we work with information.

Notes’ solution to this collaborative paradox was the invention of the Mail-In Database. This is a Notes database which can receive email and have its own unique email address. With the application of a little coding an Agent in the Notes database can automatically issue a response, a notification or forward that email to another system. i.e. the Mail-In Database acts as a key component in electronic process control. This has been the case for the last fifteen or so years. Customers of IBM Notes know how good it is at just getting on with improving these business processes.

When you’re looking to automate a business process, the Notes Mail-In Database is an excellent place to start. It gets more complicated, though, when you need to deal with ad-hoc information which you might receive, or when information comes in that can’t easily be categorized and automated. For the most part these are the emails we continue to receive in our inbox which need to be shared with our colleagues, transferred into another system, or dealt-with in a different way.

Someone who works on several projects at once, or has several customers they deal with simultaneously will recognize this issue. You don’t know what format an email will come in and so therefore you have to manually file, forward and reply to those messages. This is where the collaboration problem starts.

I, and many others, have attempted over the years to come up with smart ways of tagging reference codes, footers and all sorts of other coded signals into replies users would send so that a database system in the middle might have a chance of collecting and sharing the information automatically. The truth is that so far such systems are not at the reliability level which most organizations would accept. We therefore still have to handle quite a lot of email manually ourselves.

Without any modification to my email handling procedures – either in Notes, Outlook or any other email client you care to mention – I need to decide what I want to share with my colleagues. I need to decide what to keep and I need to decide how I am going to file it for future access. If I am the only one who has received the email I am a single point of failure in the information flow. If I forward an important email to three of my colleagues, I need to explicitly state who I want to do something about it, or to record what I have done about it. They then have a copy of the message too; the original one email is now four emails, four times the storage, four copies of the same information and no-one sure whether or not they have the up to date copy.

Being able to move that important email out of my inbox into a shared area, accessible to everyone who needs access to the information would seem to be the logical thing to do. A shared location where all communications on a specific topic can be placed and where everyone can refer to the same information (a single version of the truth, if you like) is much more efficient. It means that we all have the same information and can see what each other has done. It also removes the reliance on me storing information in my mail box in a way you would understand. If you’ve ever tried to find something in someone else’s kitchen, you’ll understand what I mean.

Using a social collaboration solution to become a System of Record as well as a System of Engagement means that your colleagues can step out of the fire hose of information and become more selective about what they want to be updated on.

Thus, making it easy to get information out of my inbox and into a shared area is one of the key functions for a social inbox. You need to socialize email by connecting it to your colleagues. But hold on – won’t your colleagues be bombarded by all sorts of unnecessary information if you do this? Do they need to see every single email transaction you store? Wouldn’t you be back to the same scenario as before?

Image 11-03-2013 at 21.50

The social inbox – how to bring social to your email by dragging and dropping into your social collaboration environment.

Using a social collaboration solution to become a System of Record as well as a System of Engagement means that your colleagues can step out of the fire hose of information and become more selective about what they want to be updated on. A social collaboration solution, like IBM Connections, gives you a way to do this and means that communications sent and received can be digested in a news feed and can be kept separate from their own email. That way, they can choose what information to see, and not drown in copied and forwarded emails that others choose to tell them about. A while ago I produced an infographic with the phrase:

Email is like standing in a shower of information others choose to pour over you.

When you recognize that there are simple and effective ways to step out of that shower and take better control of the information and knowledge in your organization then you are ready to start becoming a social business.

Check out IBM’s infographic on this – GrowingSocBus_Infographic_linked

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Alan Hamilton
I believe social business is a new way for organizations of all sizes to form stronger working relationships within themselves and with their customers and partners. By demonstrating how any organization can become more open, responsible, compassionate and flexible I can show that staff and customer satisfaction increases, morale improves and better business results come.


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