Putting email in its place

A very brave chap I know, called Luis Suarez, has dared to challenge his company’s predilection for email. Email was used for everything. File sharing and editing, appointment bookings, conversations, seeking help, status reporting… Whatever the question, email was the answer. Everyone used it. It must be right.

Hmmm. Sometimes ’received wisdom’ is absolutely not right. At least not for all circumstances. Have you tried group editing a Word document? It’s fine in theory with the Track Changes and all. But it breaks down the moment more than two people are involved. And, even then, it breaks down unless responsibility is handed over with each exchange of the document.

This is why the wiki came about. It allows people to pitch in at their convenience and maintains a decent version history to boot. Word could still be used for final polishing but, for getting the content right, wikis take some beating. They also, it has to be said, take some getting used to for people with an email mentality.

We have become so used to the convenience of creating email – whack in a few cc’s and a bcc just in case – we forget that it has a dark side. Unless you have very sophisticated filters, emails crave attention. They arrive, loaded with content which has to be scanned, at least.

Compare that with an instant message, a Twitter tweet or an RSS feed. They are all means of communicating. They’re fairly unobtrusive, but they can lead to great value. They can be scanned quickly and only those that require attention be acted on. In a group setting, a chat group – such as those that can be set up in Skype – is ideal. First you can see if there’s anyone around, then you might ask, "Hey, anyone know who’s organising the Office 2.0 conference?" Someone would answer and all the others know they don’t have to bother. Compare that with an email asking the same question. If there are nine in the group, that’s potentially eight responses – and each of those would probably be cc’ed to the other seven.

Sure, email has its place, but it’s a much smaller place than you’d imagine in group work. It’s fine for one on one contact and for confidential exchanges, although not always. While writing this, I’ve heard from Luis via Skype and Twitter – little things – exchanges of information, planning a visit. Nothing much, not worth an email, but it helped us move two other discussions forward (one on debating behaviour, another on mind-mapping) at a minuscule time cost.

Of course, group collaboration isn’t for everyone. It requires an openness, a transparency and a potential exposure that makes some exceedingly nervous. But group working, especially across disciplines and between insiders and outsiders (customer, suppliers) is becoming a vital part of business these days. The firewall isn’t going to disappear, but it’s certainly shimmering at the edges as insiders and outsiders exploit social media for mutual benefit.

I’m still troubled by the thought that I can’t easily find stuff that I know is lying around somehere in all these different pools of information. But that’s maybe a problem with the way my life is (dis)organised. And, anyway, I find that the change to my grey matter has so much more value than the actual stored words.

I have to take my hat off to Luis Suarez’ achievements: during the past six months, he’s dropped the number of emails per day from 30-45 per day to 22-30 per week. And he’s achieved this within the confines of a large organisation. Okay, his job title is ’Knowledge Manager, Community Builder and Social Computing Evangelist’ and he has a good reason for promoting these ideas. But he’s not from some fluffy social computing startup. He works for IBM.

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