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I heard a lot about social email at the IBM Connect conference, but it’s not what I wrote about recently:
Imagine a social tool in which an ongoing email thread — for example with a business customer or prospect — could be treated as a social object, like a document with several sections. Social email users could share that object with others in their workgroup, for example, annotating the thread, and assigning someone in the group to follow-up with the customer. In a sense this would be treating email as the lowest common communication channel — one that doesn’t require adoption of some new tool — while the workgroup would be communicating among themselves at the highest common communication channel: a social coordinative tool in which email is content, not context.
And, over time, as more email is added to the email thread, the social discussion about the could continue, as well. This is a rich model of email and collaborative social tools intersecting.
I described that model of social email to Ed Brill, Director, Product Line Management,IBM Collaboration Solutions, and the author of Opting In: Lessons in Social Business from a Fortune 500 Product Manager. I had seen a demo of the new email plugin for IBM Connections, which basically just pulls email into the Connections context, and I was wondering if they have more in mind.
Brill: are you looking for a job in product management?
Boyd: No, I’m not. I’m just confabulating a product I would like to see exist so I can use it.
Brill: It’s not our line of thinking. It all logically sounds like things we should be doing when we talk about a social mail experience. We’re talking about a blend of context where email is not some separate thing from the other tools you are using in the context of a social business: business tools. Not Twitter or Facebook, but corporate versions of the microblog, wikis, and community tools. That’s where we blend things together.
Boyd: So now when I’m in Connections, that’s my social context. And now I have a pull down menu of email functionality, so I can respond to it in the Connections context rather than shift context, leaving Connections. That’s all well and good, but it hasn’t made email social.
Brill: The next step of that is on a longer time horizon. I want the context to be recognized when you click on the inbox, and not just show you the first-in-first-out sequence [of email]. Instead, say you are in the community of a specific project, and the request would show all the activity that is relevant to the project, or if you are looking at the activity for the 4 o’clock marketing meeting it would access the people invited to the meeting, and show recent emails from those people.
Boyd: It’s a different use case but I can see that being extremely useful.
Brill: That what we plan to bite off first; although, I like your scenario, too.
So IBM is tending to use ‘social email’ to mean — today — allowing users access to email when in a social context, like IBM Connections. But, as Ed outlined, they plan to expand that context to be more of a contextual search, so that a request to display email would fetch email that is contextual relevant. And so, to be generous — if the relevant context is ‘social’, as in Ed’s examples, then that could be considered ‘social’, after a fashion. But I think it would better be called contextual email, and we can reserve the notion of social email for the more elaborate use cases, like the one I outlined.