Email is Not Collaboration

December 6, 2010
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A few months ago, I wrote a three part series on the case against collaboration. In it, I detailed times in which working with others was ill-advised. Of course, I’m a happy collaborator when it makes sense. This is an important distinction. From my perspective, many organizations lack an effective tool to encourage effective collaboration. As a result, the old standby (email) becomes the sole and de facto collaboration tool.

And this is a big mistake. In this post, I am going to explain why.

Email and Collaboration

Email may in fact be the killer app from Enterprise 1.0. Think about how we used to communicate in professional settings. Intraoffice memos, posts on community bulletin boards, and letters represented the primary written means by which most people exchanged information. This wasn’t exactly ideal, but we really had no alternative at the time.

And then came email. It was

…was widely accepted by the business community as the first broad electronic communication medium and was the first ‘e-revolution’ in business communication. Email is very simple to understand and like postal mail, email solves two basic problems of communication: logistics and synchronization (see below).

In other words, email allowed us to take a giant leap forward, enabling near real-time communication. The speed and efficiency of the medium was unparalleled. Many people (myself included) probably relied upon emails too much.

Well, no longer is email the sole means to communicate. And it’s about time that many people and organizations came around to this fact.

Problems with Relying Exclusively on Email

There are obvious issues with email not capturing the tone of the sender. How many times has a message been misinterpreted over email? There also are more technical issues with servers occasionally taking awhile to process individual messages, leading to the often-asked question, “Didn’t you get my email?”

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve: email just is not efficient.

On a recent client engagement, the organization had no collaborative tool. I would routinely receive files as attachments, often with vague instructions about what I need to do with them. Of course, on data management and application development projects, vagueness is just plain evil. On occasion, I would misinterpret instructions based on inaccurate assumptions. Or perhaps I would receive the message correctly and begin a major change. Half an hour later, I would receive an email with a new file, formatted in a slightly different way. In a few cases, I had to junk my previous modifications.

Contrast that with what I–and many others–have: a basic screen-sharing app. There are many, but I use GoToMyPC. I can show my client in real-time how I am doing something. I can ask questions and receive immediate feedback, minimizing cost and development time. My client can ask questions and answer in turn. What’s more, I can expedite knowledge transfer and root out issues quicker than by going back-and-forth via e-mail.

Will e-mail ever die? I don’t see it happening, at least anytime soon. However, I can certainly see it being used less as different communication methods mature, evolve, and are introduced. Rather than rely exclusively on what we know best, intelligent folks and organizations will continue to push the envelope–improving collaboration in the process.

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