Reality Check: Enterprise Social Does Not Stem Email Overload

Email overload is a hot topic. Replace “email” in the title of this post with “message” and the point becomes more obvious. 
Summary: Social displaces some interactions that are inefficient over email, but overall introduces more messages for workers to sift through. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many organizations invest in enterprise social for the additional collaborative interaction (i.e., messaging) it facilitates. 
First, let’s look at how social displaces some interactions that are inefficient over email. In contrast to a private model -- which relies on addressing specific individuals and restricting who can see messages -- a public model allows everyone to more easily:
  1. Find someone who can help. Social platforms elevate experts based on their rich profiles, contributions to the community, and recognition by others. Addressing a larger group also improves the chances the right person will see your message. This avoids what IBM calls the squirrel hunt when you start pinging people to ask “Can you help me with this or direct me to someone who can?"
  2. Surface and participate in relevant discussions. We’ve all been annoyed by massive reply-all email chains. Rather than depend on being forwarded or copied at some point in an important email chain and be unnecessarily looped in on others, social tools allow us to choose to participate in relevant discussions. By electing to get notifications or watching the activity in a particular channel or group we stay "in the know” and can jump in or stay out.
At the same time however, social introduces more messages for us to sift through. Email has a low signal-to-noise ratio, but social is even noisier. In fact Forrester’s survey data shows that compared to workers who don’t use enterprise social, those that do actually spend more time in their typical workday looking for information. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are being inefficient. Rather, I believe it means they are tapping their peers and taking more time to make informed decisions.
Enteprise social facilitates more communication and more information sharing. Those are good things.
Before we argue that the social stream is more efficient than email, however, it needs to become more relevant. Perhaps over time social technologies will fine-tune their content recommendation engines and enough people will adopt the platforms to the point we trust them as much as we trust our inbox for important messages. But we’re not quite there yet. Social today is a complement, not a replacement for email. Employees in the most mature social enterprises still check their inbox first and activity streams second.
If social is not the answer, what is the role of collaboration technology in mitigating email overload?
It helps to give people the right tool for the job: Make it easy for them to conduct virtual meetings and to collaborate on content rather than send attachments back and forth. Give them email in the cloud with bigger inboxes so they don’t have to manage quotas and can more easily search for messages. There are also new useful technologies to organize email like priority inbox and more radical solutions in the form of email filtering services like Sanebox.
Agree/disagree? Has your enterprise social deployment cut down the number of emails going around?