Could Social Networking Kill Email in the Office?

The National Nuclear Security Administration aims to stop the barrage of useless messages with a workplace network.

Could social networking actually replace email and phone calls in the workplace? One agency thinks so. The National Nuclear Security Administration plans to roll out a social network next spring that will replace many of its traditional modes of communication.

The platform, called One Voice, is a pilot that other divisions of the Energy Department might adopt in the future, NNSA Chief Technology Officer Travis Howerton told a recent federal technology policy forum sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, a government-industry partnership. The initial launch will include the agency’s roughly 45,000 employees and contractors spread across 10 locations. 

Howerton described the social networking program as similar to Facebook, with a broadly accessible layer that everyone in the system can look at, as well as numerous subcommunities for employees in particular divisions or with certain expertise. Accessing the site will require extensive authentication and additional security controls will apply to specific communities that discuss sensitive information. The social networking platform will include embedded systems for instant messaging, Web conferencing and other tools.

“The way I like to describe where we’re going is today we’re chartered to make weapons of mass destruction using a weapon of mass distraction, which is email,” Howerton said. “How much of your email is actionable? Ten percent, maybe 15? The rest of it is people cc-ing you on things they think you need to know that you really don’t. And there’s 60 percent of it that’s just straight spam.”

One Voice is part of an Energy Department information technology reform effort Howerton is leading called RightPath. If the NNSA pilot proves successful, other Energy divisions will be able to adopt the network without significant additional testing, he said. 

“We’re approving an IT modernization strategy that says this is the answer for the agency, but what we want to do is prove it at scale,” Howerton said. “We want to crawl-walk-run, but it is an agencywide goal to get to that end state.”

A social information exchange rather than a one-to-one email exchange can help employees filter out extraneous information and reduce the pressure to send unnecessary responses, according to Howerton. It also can bring useful participants into a conversation that an emailer might not have thought to include and filter out those who are not essential, he added.

“If we have multiple projects coming up and we want to get a feel for what the community thinks, we have the ability to quickly put that out and get feedback,” Howerton said. “It has things like town halls in it and we can publish video out to our constituents.”

The system will archive all information to guard against losing institutional knowledge when an employee leaves the agency or changes jobs.

The greatest challenge in adopting the system has been developing the architecture to support it, Howerton said, such as a cloud-based network that reaches all the agency’s dispersed offices and an authentication system to ensure the platform is secure.

Once the system is operating, NNSA will consider integrating other workplace functions into it, such as training, he added.

“This will foundationally change the way people work,” Howerton said. “If you look at moving to a virtual workforce, one of the things you lose is those relationships. If you’re working from home every day, a social network allows you to build relationships with people in your community and establish status.”