As a number of passionate employees are trying to introduce a new communication system that allows employees to communicate with each other in new and potentially more efficient ways, they are confronted with a number of challenges such as the following:
- Most people have a hard time understanding for what purposes the technology can be used
- There is a lack of buy-in and support from top management - they don't see why they invest anything in the new technology
- There are no good techniques available for creating business cases and calculating ROI for implementing the new communication technology (the technology has been developed by passionate engineers for pure fun - it's easy for them since they already have access the hardware that makes it possible)
- There are islands of users across the organization, but no mass adoption of the new technology. The technology has only been adopted by tech-savvy early adopters and there is really no broad adoption yet.
- Although many people have created profiles in the system so that they can be contacted, they haven't made it an habit to read messages that are sent to them. The consequence is that people stop using the system since they don't get any response from the people they tried to communicate with.
- Many, especially managers, are concerned about what people will write when using the system, and mechanisms and procedures for censoring is discussed. The security department is assigned the responsibility of dealing with messages that don't comply with rules and guidelines.
- There is great uncertainty (and lack of awareness) about the potential of the technology when it comes to improving productivity of information work.
I have just read the transcript (in Swedish) from a "witness seminar" in 2008 about early email systems, and the challenges mentioned above were a reality during the early days of corporate email in the 1980's. One such system was the MEMO system that run on mainframe computers (it was originally developed by Volvo and SKF in close collaboration with IBM). I have used the MEMO system myself for several years when working as consultant for customers, as it was just recently replaced with Microsoft Exchange in several large Swedish organization. It is especially interesting to note the following observation from the talks with people who developed, introduced and used early corporate email systems:
"these systems were developed alongside ordinary work, just for fun. Decisions were based on visions rather than economical calculations such as cost-benefit analysis."
Does this sound familiar? :-)
Note that this was way before companies and organizations started using email for their external interaction with customers, suppliers, resellers etc. So there wasn't any external pressure on organizations to change their ways of communicating internally. It was a technology-driven process where the use cases and value was discovered along the way.
Furthermore, broad adoption only seemed to happen as formal communication flows are moved to the new communication system, especially news - since news can travel faster in the new communication system. It wasn't until the new technology was integrated and made a natural part of the daily work that it gained adoption and started to create value for the organizations that had implemented it.
Another interesting observation is that the designers of these early corporate email systems understood that e-mail wasn't at all suitable for many-to-many communication due to risk of creating information overload and creating massive amounts of duplicated information. However, they found that email was lovely to use for one-to-one communication. But they didn't like the "push" nature of email and preferred that people could "pull" the information they needed instead. They even discussed not adding features for creating mail lists. It wasn't until a manager said "I want to inform all these people" that the feature was implemented. But bear in mind that at that time the communication between managers and employees was mostly one-way communication, which means that the number and complexity of many-to-many conversations was very limited compared to today. The increasing use of email for many-to-many communication that has happend over the years is also main reason why email has developed into the biggest productivity drain for knowledge workers today. It provides clear motivation form introducing social technologies that are designed for many-to-many communication at scale.