Email is dead. No really, it is. The days of point to point communication, accidental “reply to all”, and “can you send that to me again?” are over. What’s replaced it? Three words: Professional Social Networks (PSN).
Ok, so maybe I overstated the death of email. Just like email didn’t eliminate the hand-written note or the US Postal Service, Professional Social Networks won’t eliminate email altogether. What PSN will do is increase the agility of organizations that employ them. Just as email enabled people on their Blackberries to remain connected when away from their desks, PSNs will enable people to collaborate when they’re physically separated from their offices.
So, what is a PSN?
A generic definition would be “the development of social and professional contacts; the sharing of information and services among people with a common interest”. There are loads of examples, and many of the most successful companies use them. The most widely known, of course, is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is sort of the “public square” of PSNs, where people can have discussions, advertise themselves and their products, and connect with like-minded people. There are others, of course, and many companies have their own internal PSNs. Google Plus began as an internal network, and many other companies like Booz-Allen-Hamilton has a PSN for employees to find work within the company, and even the Department of Defense has MilSuite.
Many leaders run screaming from the room when the subject of social networks comes up. So are PSNs all about sharing memes or pictures of food? Of course not. PSNs are for conducting business and should take the place of email in most circumstances. PSNs have three distinct advantages over email: permanency, discoverability, and shareability.
First, the information exchanged on a PSN is much more permanent than information exchanged on email. To begin with, the information shared remains resident in the network far longer than email. Ever try to find an email by searching keywords you were certain were the correct ones, only to give up after 30 minutes of fruitless searching? Unless your are scrupulous about filing–and most people are not–chances are not very good you’ll find an email older than a few months. Even fabulously “searchable” GMail has let me down from time to time. With corporate or government networks the problem is exacerbated because of mailbox size limits prevent you from keeping that email in a location where you can easily find it again.
Second, the information exchanged on PSNs is discoverable. Because discussion threads remain resident on the PSN site for far longer, and because that information is searchable, discussions are discoverable. This is a very important point. For organizations to be agile, they have to be able to shift to address changing conditions. Understanding the “why” of a particular decision is important to applying that decision or even making new ones. Agile leaders make decisions quickly, and if those decisions are never codified in manuals or written policy, then the only record is often is an email string. If the only record of those decisions is on an executive’s email–good luck figuring out what transpired. However, a properly tagged discussion thread allows others not only review the discussion later, but participate in that same discussion by extending the thread. With PSNs, no information is really archived–it’s as if we put a “pause” button on each meeting and can be reviewed and even restarted when necessary.
Third, PSNs allow members to link new information to old information i.e. it’s far more shareable. Making connections between sometimes disparate information threads is crucial to remaining agile in a fast moving business environment. In the military world, making those connections in a fast moving environment means the difference between being ahead of the enemy or missing them. Intelligence fusion centers entire purpose is to synthesize various streams of information and produce decision quality data. In the civilian world, PSNs allow the entire workforce to become an “intel fusion center” by sharing discussions, links, and documents across communities. Well led and connected organizations can now have access to a greater volume and variety of information, and can use that to their advantage.
PSNs are a unique construction of the digital age, and are tremendously powerful if harnessed.They cannot completely replace email, but like all tools if used in parallel with knowledge management tools like Sharepoint, instant messaging, and static web pages, PSNs can increase the speed of decisionmaking and the agility of the organization.
Unleash the power of PSNs and just say no to email!
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, People Development Magazine, and GeneralLeadership.com.