Culture & Competency

Is Email Killing Collaboration?

Dan ran some workshops in New Zealand recently to investigate whether email is killing collaboration:

There’s a lot of talk about alternatives to email. But if you look at people on their computers, most of the time they’re not using Web 2 or Enterprise 2. They’re using email. We use email because everyone uses email. It’s the only online communication tool that everyone uses. So we’re stuck with it.

And email is fantastic for one to one communication. It’s brilliant for one to many communication. But for many to many communication, it sucks. So when you start using email to collaborate in groups of 3, 4 or 5, it hurts. It pokes you in the eye with a fork. So you stop. And collaboration stops. And lies bleeding on the floor.

But no-one talks about this. We’re too busy talking about Web 2 and Enterprise 2. Meanwhile the use of email keeps growing. It’s an elephant in the room. Well I’m breaking the silence about it.

Key findings:
– The workshop attendees were at a government information systems conference in NZ.
– Email is widely used for many-to-many communication.
– There are few alternatives available for many-to-many communication.
– Email is difficult to use for many-to-many collaboration.
– Email is not causing people to collaborate less.

Dan concludes with:

This preliminary investigation has confirmed my hunches that people are stuck with email and that email is not great for collaboration. But they seem not to be bothered by that. This raises more questions than it answers.

Why are people collaborating using email when it is painful? Are they that motivated to collaborate as much as they do, but no more? Perhaps people are collaborating because they have to. Perhaps they do not realise that a culture of voluntary collaboration is possible once the barriers are lowered. What would happen if you made it easier for people to collaborate using email? This definitely warrants further investigation.

My Comments
1. What do you think about the questions and responses? Please post your comments over on Dan’s blog.

2. I have written a number of blog posts about email and collaboration, including:
Email vs. Collaboration Technology: The Big Match (December 2006)
Unresolved Issues with Email: Confusion in Conversation Flow (January 2007)
Unresolved Issues with Email: Confusion in Conversation Context (January 2007)
Unresolved Issues in Email: It Creates Unnecessary Communication (February 2007)
Email is the Enemy of Collaboration? (September 2010)

2 replies »

  1. I don’t entirely agree Michael.
    We email outside of the company and when we need an audit trail but rarely if ever use email internally.
    I used to think that we were slightly unusual as a company, in that we don’t have a physical head office and all of our staff work remotely. I am however starting to observe an increasing number of companies working in this way (notably Woods Bagot Intranets Live tour earlier this month)
    In our company quick time collaboration is key – we Yam and Skype as the norm. I couldn’t imagine it any other way now.

  2. Lucy,
    Thanks for sharing – excellent to get a different perspective. It’s very cool that new ways of collaborating have become so intricately embedded at IBF.