CIO Folder: Like coffee, instant is not the real thing

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11 April 2016 | 0

Messaging is still one of the most basic and most essential applications in all of ICT. The recent death of Ray Tomlinson reminded us yet again, that the single most universal application and contributor to the spread of all forms of personal computing was Internet email. And that beloved @. It was a glorious revolution bringing superfast electronic communication, by the standards of the day, to officials and academics, business and real people.

It is entirely arguable that personal computing and all of its many giant steps forward — word processing, databases and spreadsheets, desktop publishing — would have remained for much longer in the domain of tech hobbyists but for the infinite possibilities of email. Over a decade ago we all heard media and sociology pundits pontificate about how Skype was drawing grannies into IT. Given the motivation of children and grandchildren in far foreign fields, they learned to master screen and keyboard.

“While it is tempting to dismiss the hype, there really can be little doubt that in today’s dispersed 24×7 work environments, especially in large organisations, anything that facilitates communications between colleagues is potentially very valuable”

But we saw all of that before. The grannies of literally a previous generation mastered or at least grasped the same skills in the same way to keep in touch with distant loved ones. The only real difference was economic — far fewer households had a PC, so adoption could not be as widespread. Yet this column certainly remembers classes in Dublin’s public libraries offering training and use of computers specifically for communications with our young diaspora. Every generation thinks its own surge of emigration is unique and different but the family and social implications and impulses are constant.

Email is now 45 years old. Some of us would happily argue that this is a splendidly mature stage. Its solid (though perhaps stolid) professionalism is almost emphasised by the scramble of youthful contenders in the written communications space. There is Instant Messaging, itself now in danger of fading into the passé, and the likes of Twitter and WhatsApp and so on. Blending instant messages and chat (text, audio or video) puts the social seriously in social media.

There is no question that there is an enormous range of new possibilities in live multimedia interaction online. The top levels of high quality teleconferencing have it to some extent, but we are at the beginning of a much deeper kind of experience. Just to start, think of the combination of anywhere anytime and 3D that will undoubtedly come soon enough with virtual reality headsets and increased mobile bandwidth. To that can be added tactile feedback, perhaps beyond the simply haptic, and even perhaps odour reproduction, however artificial. No doubt some of the early advances will be driven by the sex industry, but let’s not go there in TechPro.

Back in current reality, especially in business and state organisations — actually, in all formally constituted organisations — email now serves in place of essential but historical systems. It is by default the correspondence system of record but much more than that, as anyone who has ever lost email data will ruefully confirm. The salient point is that email lends itself to discipline because it is natively in discrete units — emails and attachments — and has developed lots of solid data structures over the decades. In a corporate setting email can be centralised, secured, accessed and shared according to policy rules and held in auditable form or archived for governance obligations.

Right there is a major set of legal and prudential considerations that need to be properly managed in any organisation. Another hugely significant factor is that email is universal. It can be exchanged between any known computers on any network, not necessarily the Internet/Web, because the standards are internationally agreed. Similarly, there are many well-proven organisational and technical solutions to the management and secure storage of email.

More recently, systems of protecting email and its data in transit have matured while encryption is available at an organisational and individual user level and is, relatively, easy to use. Most ICT experts, on the other hand, will concede that the general use of encryption is as much a cultural issue as anything else. Still in general use, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) goes back to 1982 and does not provide encryption. However, the new proposed SMTP Strict Transport Security is likely to speed up the advent of general email encryption because it was devised and is supported by big players like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and LinkedIn.

Today’s cyberworld is a dangerous jungle in every sense — as well as being a boon to mankind. So we have to learn how to behave and how to take care of ourselves. That certainly applies to the growing alternative of enterprise social networks [ESNs], which were predicted several years ago to be another ‘Next Great Thing’ in communications within organisations and, potentially, their partners or associates. While it is tempting to dismiss the hype, there really can be little doubt that in today’s dispersed 24×7 work environments, especially in large organisations, anything that facilitates communications between colleagues is potentially very valuable.

Increasingly, we simply do not have the natural social interactions of a shared workplace and working day. The Friday night pub sessions still obtain in many organisations, of course, including our imported ones where the staff too are thoroughly multinational. But although great for gossip and boss-bitching, as ever, it is not something the organisation can usefully promote.

Today’s smart solutions like Chatter, Connections, Jive, SocialCast and Yammer are all in the direct lineage of the early ‘Intranets’ (an almost forgotten term) because they are provided and generally controlled by the employing organisation. It is no coincidence that four of the those named are from IBM, Microsoft, SalesForce and VMware. There is a real need for such complementary corporate communications channels or systems or whatever we call them. The work relationships really have to match the many ways in which so much of people’s personal lives are now conducted virtually. In fact, the ESN products are competing in the extent to which they offer facilities and features that the leading consumer social media have pioneered, especially Facebook.

Most of the corporate ESN solutions pay serious attention to collaboration at work, facilitating teams and workgroups, for example, with appropriate tools and workspaces or information sharing restricted to members. So in fairness, these are not entertainment applications. They are a deliberate blend of the familiar social apps of today’s usually younger generations and a reasonable degree of corporate control.

In fact, the general anecdotal feedback across at least the English-speaking corporate world is that many senior staffers, who do not personally use social media very much, are not only happy with but strong advocates of ESN. In many respects that is probably more of a cultural attitude than a response to the technology. Older employees and managers of a sociable disposition who objectively value modern ICT tools adapt as readily as they once did to laptops and smart phones and tablets. Attitude not age is the key, as in so many things.

ESNs are aimed at improving communications generally across the organisation and in turn aiding efficiencies, particularly by fostering the kind of inter-discipline or inter-unit networking that be creatively valuable. They also aim to give a smooth straight path for collaboration between any group of employees, especially team members. Slack is a rising star in e-collaboration which combines many professional features with some of the useful attributes of ESN and messaging.

On the other hand, all social media, by its nature, offers scope for personalities and conflicts and, to put it gently, irrelevance. People talk about ‘death by trivia’ but other issues would include dominant personalities and subtle cyber-bullying, not to mention the inevitable showing off and attention seeking. Collaboration tools are essential in the modern enterprise but there is a constant danger that many of the social aspects of ESN will create a culture in which the disciplines will be softened and ineffective.

What effective collaboration needs, indeed demands, is structure and the recording of who said/ did/ decided/agreed what and when. If the superficials are simple and friendly and quite like personal social networking that’s fine. But the structure and secure recording is what is essential for organisational and business use. In behind the fancy social stuff, what we need is old fashioned email with a 21st century twist.


Leslie Faughnan

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