Tools & Technologies

Email vs. Collaboration Technology: The Big Match, Dec 12

There has been a good debate in the blogspace during the previous 3-4 months regarding the good and bad of email as a collaboration tool, and I’ve stayed out of it until today. My intention in this post is to review some of the arguments that have been put forward, to give my own interpretation on some of those points, and to attempt a summary statement for next actions. Those of you who have read my work for any duration of time will know that collaboration technology has been an especial focus for me since 1994, that I generally state that email is bad for collaboration, and that I’m now working as the Research VP at Foldera. Notwithstanding all of that, I think there are some additional helpful contributions that can be made to this debate.

First Principles: What’s the Difference Between “Communication” and “Collaboration”?
Lotus introduced the three C’s–communication, coordination and collaboration–sometime in the 1990s in association with Lotus Notes. It was trying to find a way to explain the power of Notes within an organizational setting, and these three words were intended to convey that power and expanse. Those three words continue to be bandied around today, although “collaboration” appears to have come to the fore with the recent Web 2.0 developments and releases. But what actually is the difference between the three, and is the difference so great as to indicate a difference of substance, or merely a difference of degree? And regardless of whether it’s a difference of substance or degree, does that mean inter alia that different technologies are needed to augment the capabilities of people depending on what they’re doing?

Here’s what has to say:

  • Communication … (1) the act or process or communicating; (2) the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs; (4) a document or message imparting news, views, information.
  • Coordination … (1) the act or state of coordinating or being coordinated; (2) proper order or relationship; (3) harmonious combination or interaction, as of functions or parts.
  • Collaboration … (1) the act or process of collaborating; (2) a product resulting from collaboration. The American Heritage Dictionary adds (1) to work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort; and (2) to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one’s country. And WordNet adds (1) the act of working jointly, “coaction”; and (2) the act of cooperating traitorously with an enemy that is occupying your country.

My take on the above is that the first two–communication and coordination–have a set of distinct actions that people do when they’re communicating or coordinating, but that “collaboration” describes a process that is made up of actions that the word itself does not convey. Or to put it more bluntly, collaboration is merely a meta-word to describe a set of communication and coordination activities with a specific goal or outcome in mind. As in, “collaboration” means communicating with others over time toward a jointly held final outcome, and coordinating the actions of many toward that outcome.

Let’s look at it another way: what does “good” look like in the case of each word?

  • “Good” communication means that people think carefully about what they want to communicate by speech or writing, they choose a communication channel that minimizes noise and distraction, they take specific steps to ensure that their communication was received and understood by the person for whom it was intended, and they are open to discussion about where the message is unclear.
  • “Good” coordination means that every person within the coordination process knows the end to which they are being coordinated, knows what they specifically have to do in order to effectively get there, and they know what other people are doing that could hinder or help their own achievements.
  • “Good” collaboration means that people communicated well, debated vigorously, and worked together in order to achieve a commonly-held outcome.

So in conclusion, I charge that “collaboration” is merely communication + coordination. Communication can happen without coordination (it is merely the passing on of information for someone else to do with as they see fit; no joint outcome has been defined), coordination requires effective communication (because you have to communicate with others in order to coordinate multiple people towards a common end; it isn’t something that just happens for no jointly-held reason), and collaboration is just a quick-handed way of saying “communication + coordination”.

A Response to Plougmann’s 10-to-1 Rule of Email Project Management
Lars, a collaboration consultant in the UK (and someone that I recommend organizations speak with about collaboration) authored a blog post in August 2006 entitled A 10-to-1 rule of email based project management (if you haven’t read it, go do so now). He (a) argues that an email sent to 10 people will have a cascading set of effects, and (b) advocates the addition of collaborative tools as a way of overcoming these effects.

My response, however, is that the mere complementary use of a collaborative tool isn’t going to solve these human behaviors; in fact, it may not even change them significantly. To wit, if 10 people have access to a collaborative tool (for argument’s sake, a wiki), then:

  • 9 people read it, but are scared about clicking “Edit” to update it, thinking that they’ll break something. They email the author instead who has to keep it up-to-date.
  • 8 people will complain that it’s different to email, and use it only reluctantly.
  • 7 people will receive notification by RSS or email about a change, but they actually didn’t need to know about it.
  • 6 people won’t be able to find a particular wiki page again. It will have shifted from the main index, and they’ll think it is gone forever.
  • 5 people will print off the current version of the wiki page and use that as the authoritative version.
  • 4 people will forget to visit it, or visit it so infrequently that they can’t make an effective contribution.
  • 3 people each month will forget their password or the URL, and thus have to interrupt someone to get their credentials renewed or re-issued.
  • 2 people will refuse to use the tool, regardless of the entreaties given by all and sundry. Manual ways of keeping these wiki laggards up-to-date have to be created.
  • 1 of them will live in the wiki, embrace it perfectly, and know everything that’s going on.

So, in the final analysis, it may not be all that different. Yes, there are some areas where a collaborative tool will make a difference, but one of the questions that I’m wrestling with at the moment is whether that difference is significant enough to outweigh the use of a collaborative tool vs. email. It all comes down to (a) effective and (b) group-wide adoption and embrace of the tool. If that’s there with email, email will be fine. If that’s there with the collaboration tool, that will be fine. If it’s not there for either, both will fail. Regardless, I strongly argue that you can’t dismiss one technology that’s being used poorly and advocate another where you assume usage will be perfect.

One respondent to Lars’s 10-to-1 rule charged that:

… few people, in fact, devote any thought to the systemic role of communications in project management settings. If they consider communications at all, they assume that sending messages implies that they will be effectively received. That is not a symmetry that can be safely assumed.” Jim McGee, Why email continues to be a poor project management tool, October 2006

But … but … but … if effective reception is the key measure that Jim’s interested in, then his charge is still going to apply to many of the collaborative technologies that exist to support project communication. It’s not like the mere introduction of a wiki, for example, is a magic wand that automatically removes clouded judgment. We’re still the same people, and the practice for effectiveness in communication is the same regardless of technology: if in doubt, ask for clarification. If that premise is true, email could be used just effectively as something else. I don’t see a difference of quantum proportions.

What’s Wrong with Email?
Numerous lists exist as to what’s wrong with email (as an item of communication) and email (as client software). Here’s a list I pulled together based on reading some blog posts during a recent afternoon:

  1. Attachments may not work properly across firewalls (Om)
  2. Re-edits require a new email; there are now multiple copies of the same thing in people’s Inboxes (John)
  3. People get too much spam, although it’s not as bad as it was in 2003 (Ed)
  4. People can misuse it; they can write hastily, without sufficient detail (David)
  5. People can use it as a substitute for more personalized messages. Messages can appear harsher than was intended (David, comment 3)
  6. People use it for everything, even though better things are available (David, comment 4)
  7. It can be a real time sink, if we don’t use it properly (David, comment 5)
  8. Conversations are left dangling, due to (a) people adding others and removing others from the distribution list at will, and (b) they don’t fully answer the question that is posed / asked (JP)
  9. People use CC: and BCC: in unnecessary and irrelevant ways (JP)
  10. People have poor or bad email habits. They don’t use folders, they keep everything in the inbox (and I add “as an undifferentiated mish-mash”), they don’t use easy things like color-coding to identify who messages are from (Ed)
  11. We have to re-send information to people who join after the fact (Ed)

I’ve ordered the above list of 11 items in a particular way so I can make this observation:

  • Problems #1-#2 are problems with technology … although #1 isn’t really an email problem per se. #2 is definitely an email problem; email wasn’t designed to do this.
  • Problems #3-#10 are problems with people’s use of the technology of email, that is behaviors related to email usage that are sub-optimal or ineffective given the medium.
  • Problem #11 may be a technology problem or may be a people problem (eg, who says that the new person should automatically get to see everything that has happened historically? Is *all* of it relevant, or should only pertinent issues/messages be shared? Also, #11 would be simply solved if organization’s used AfterMail (now Quest Archive Manager), because of that products ability to publish historical conversation items to current and new team members.

That is 8 of the 11 aforementioned problems with email are primarly people problems, not email technology problems at all. And thus if we can identify what perfect usage and adoption looks like, then we should be able to mitigate / reduce / eliminate many if not all of these problems too. Hence, the true “problems of email” become more manageable and not as severe as it would appear on first glance. And equally, it also shows that the mere application of another technology won’t solve all 11 problems, because 8/11ths of the problems in practice aren’t technology related at all.

Next Action: We Have Three Key Questions To Resolve
In summary, I advocate that we have three key questions to resolve before we can charge that email is ineffective for “collaborative” activities:

  1. What does effective practice look like? Where are the exemplary users of email, and what do they do differently to the rest of us?
  2. How many of the so-called “problems” of email are due to merely bad adoption and usage vs. technical issues with email per se? What’s bad about email based on the way people use it, as opposed to what’s bad about email based on what the technology can and can not do?
  3. If we conclude that collaborative tools are substantially different from email, what proportion of people’s communication and coordination activities would / could / should be shifted to another tool? Is that proportion sufficiently large to warrant a new tool, given that the user will lose some things that are near-and-dear to them (eg, per Anne, interoperability, personalized organization, easy access control, and single point of information access?)

I’ll be formulating my analysis and thoughts on these, and I hope you will too. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Here’s some of the resultant posts I’ve noted:
1. Lars, Counterpoint: email vs. collaboration technologies, December 12, 2006
2. John, Where does email fit in document collaboration?, December 17, 2006

Categories: Tools & Technologies

12 replies »

  1. Maybe the problem isn’t email

    Michael Sampson has a great summary of the ongoing discussion about whether email can be considered a collaboration tool. The thing I want to highlight is realization that most of the problems associated with email have nothing to do with email itself.

  2. Counterpoint: email vs. collaboration technologies

    In an article called The Big Match, Michael Sampson joins the ongoing discussion about the effectiveness of email versus other collaboration tools (I compiled a summary of the discussion about a month ago). As a counterpoint to my 10-to-1 list

  3. Good to have you join the discussion.
    I like your 10-to-1 counter list, especially “5 people will print off the current version of the wiki page and use that as the authoritative version.” It haven’t witnessed that one yet but I know that it will happen someday and then I won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
    Email is a powerful tool, integral to how we do business today. It is not a case of email vs. collaboration tools and winner takes all, but, as you point out, what ‘proportion’ of email collaboration should shift to another tool to create the best environment for work to get done.

  4. Excellent article!
    One point – why do we generally look at email as the “enemy”, why not learn from its ubiquitous uptake and take the best of how it fits so well with people.
    I love email – but why? Maybe it’s the same reason that people love cars, it’s personal and it puts a “covering” around me and my life.

  5. @Lars … there’s many cool ideas in tech that don’t work in practice … I too don’t know whether to laugh, cry or bang my head against the door frame.
    @Mike … agreed.

  6. Where does email fit in document collaboration?

    Michael Sampson from Foldera has added a great post to the email for collaboration meme, deducing that most of the issues are people problems dealing with the new collaborative technology services (laziness, culture, fear, time, etc..), he also adds t…

  7. I’m old enough to remember life, and in particular, business life before email. It is much better with email than without. However, too much of a good thing can be bad for us. I love ice cream, but have to limit my consumption.
    I have thought for some time that email is overloading us in the workplace because it is perceived by the sender to be free. As with all things, when people believe that something is free, they waste it. This waste comes at little cost to the sender but at great cost to the recipient. I think one of the solutions is to apply a cost to the free email resource so that the senders will begin to conserve it. So I decided to put my money where my mouth was and build a product that allows a work group to apply postage to their email. We will see where the idea goes. If managers truly believe that they are overloaded with email from their employees, then this postage tool is one technique that can reduce their email. However, managers will have to be ready for push back from those employees. If they recoil from the push back, then they will have to accept the email and information overload as a given. Infomania will assume the same status in our lives as the weather, we all complain but never do anything about it.
    My 2 cents.

  8. Interesting article and insight. Its easy to solve this issue. What if you take the “messaging” part of email and integrate in a project management system. So, every thing you do inside the system has a way to cc or post a comment. So, you are notified of a new comment or a post via email, the knoeledge resides in the system (and not in your inbox) and its categorized and updated by any of your team members…

  9. Collaboration context, or what isIT?

    There has been much discussion about email as a collaboration tool, and possible alternatives. These are great discussions and really got me to thinking as well. It seems email started out as a communication tool, and as other information systems be…

  10. Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! “This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. Keep it up!”

  11. Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! “This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. Keep it up!”