The Communication Shift: It’s Time for a Change in the Enterprise

|   Aug 2, 2010

Looking back over the past half-century, a clear pattern has emerged with respect to how companies and their employees communicate. Every 20 years, a new widespread form of enterprise collaboration has been adopted. From the adoption of the telephone in business (1950s), the fax machine (1970s), and email (1990s), how business people communicate and collaborate has drastically changed over a short time period. Each technology leap has allowed the faster sharing of information, increasing the speed at which business can be conducted.


The first revolutionary shift began with the widespread adoption of the telephone in business during the early 1950s. Between 1951 and 1956, nearly $82 million was spent developing telephone communication infrastructure from New York to San Francisco and Europe. The result was that businesses now had access to technology to communicate across the country with the transcontinental microwave line, or across the world via the transatlantic cable. At the same time, while the telephone itself had been around for many years, it became an everyday tool for most corporate employees during this time period. This gave them unprecedented access to colleagues, clients and more. The business telephone represented instant vocal communication that could be used by anyone, not just telegraph operators. It was the first piece of communication technology that could be a substitute for face-to-face interaction.

The next wave in business communication came to be with the fax machine in the 1970s. The power of this new tool was its ability to instantly transfer documents from business to business, giving companies the power to exchange written information without having to wait for the mail or a messenger. The fax used the massive telephone infrastructure built during the previous 20 years, only requiring businesses to purchase the fax machine. Crucial information could now be sent across the country instantly, making business move even faster than before. No longer did an employee have to rely on vocal communication to get his or her work done – collaboration could occur with everyone knowing what was written on paper.

The next and most significant change in business communication came from email in the 1990s. It was the first shift that was completely digital in both information delivery and content. Email brought about a new form of social interaction. Whereas the phone mimicked face-to-face communication, and the fax machine enabled document-based collaboration, email enabled instant written communication with the click of a button. Its speed, simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and instant gratification for information-consumption made it quickly become the standard enterprise communication tool.

Now that it’s the year 2010, we’re experiencing the next 20-year shift. Email is still going to be crucial for business communication, but it has also worn out its welcome; 20 years of use has allowed an entire global workforce to learn how to use, abuse, and manipulate this tool so that it’s become a necessary evil to contend with – not simply a marvelously fast and useful way to share information. It’s time for a new communication platform to take center stage.

In 2010, we have now entered the era of the Activity Stream. Enabled by the advent of the internet and our constant consumption and sharing of information on the web, activity streams in business expose the flow of what’s happening across places, systems, and people in the business. This real-time social application takes the speed, innovation and simplicity of each of its predecessors, acting as a communication and collaboration powerhouse that flattens companies and makes colleagues in the virtual world feel real. Activity Streams fundamentally change how companies do business, unlocking the vast amount of information generated by everyday operations and making it instantly available across previously rigid boundaries. Activity Streams humanize every business process inside a company, adding a social layer to data and opening up real-time collaboration.

According to Gartner, “By 2012, over 50 percent of enterprises will use activity streams…” The social layer that activity streams bring into a company can fundamentally change how a company does business. In real-time, activity streams can:

  1. Provide real-time communication and collaboration, creating a flow of knowledge and ideas
  2. Flatten a company and make all employees feel more real
  3. Allow employees to share ideas and tell people what they think
  4. Help employees get quick answers to questions, while sharing the valuable information with others

The next communication shift is happening, just like it did 20 years ago. The enterprise is now social, real-time, and shaped by what we’re doing on the web in our personal lives. For the next several years, we can expect these trends to continue molding how employees interact at work and communicate with their colleagues. And, while our previous business communication tools will never fully disappear, we can expect to see new tools continue to revolutionize communications every two decades. For now, the power of activity streams will dominate how we work, giving us better, faster access to information in order to do our jobs more efficiently.

Sources: Gartner, Nielson, PEW, The Wall Street Journal, PrivateLine


  • “Email is still going to be crucial for business communication, but it has also worn out its welcome…” While we can all agree that a communication shift has begun, I question when and how we’ll see a completely new platform take over. Business IT users have an intolerance for constant change. I believe the catalyst for mass adoption requires integration between the new and the old – in order to keep people in their comfort zone while providing added value. So rather than a divisive either/or, the future may very well be an inclusive “and” in which email plays a vital role.

    Commented on August 12, 2010 at 4:10 pm
  • It would be interesting to explore how to best use activity streams to unlock knowledge and value between companies…particularly along a supply chain.

    Commented on August 14, 2010 at 11:29 am
  • Thank you for the post, Mark. Indeed big changes are happening. A couple of months ago I prepared a talk about fostering innovation and change within an enterprise. Just in case, I posted my references on my site. Feel free to find them here: I hope your readers find it useful. Thanks again for the post! Alex.

    Commented on August 21, 2010 at 4:10 pm
  • Great posting,Mark.Agree with you. we are on era of Activity stream. Based on my experience (I was an engineer before,as media practitioner, and knowledge management consultant),yes is true, enterprises is more social. But,we must developed it into a clear knowledge management framework. Then,we can create the conversations to build learning culture,managed knowledge flows,and make significant impact to our business.

    Nice to know you,Mark!

    Commented on September 15, 2010 at 12:30 am

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Socialcast by VMware (NYSE: VMW) is a social network for business uniting people, information, and applications with its real-time enterprise activity stream engine. Behind the firewall or in the cloud, Socialcast enables instant collaboration in a secure environment. Socialcast is headquartered in San Francisco, California.