Is Email 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.

But just how bad is this problem? As we are basing our business on the notion that there is a need to make email collaboration easier, I figure we should know a bit more about it. I decided to conduct some informal research.

At the recent GOVIS 2011 conference, I conducted some workshops to access people’s experience and gather some data on the problem. The workshops set out to explore three assertions.

  1. We Are Stuck with Email
  2. Email Collaboration is Difficult
  3. Email Makes People Collaborate Less

I’ll explain the results. But first a little context. First up, I make no claim that this is robust research. This is a preliminary investigation that I hope will open more of a conversation about email.

The Participants

The participants were attendees at a New Zealand government information systems conference. In two one-hour workshops held on consecutive days, there was a total of fifteen participants. The participants were about 50:50 in line of business roles vs some kind of IS related role.

Defining Online Collaboration

For the purpose of this exercise, I defined collaboration as restricted to many-to-many collaboration in persistent groups.

To warm up the participants to collaboration, I explained the three main collaboration tasks that we think about at OnlineGroups.Net:

  • keep in the loop — the most common collaboration task, sometimes referred to as non-posting participation or (in an attempt to reclaim its status from the pejorative “lurking”) as legitimate peripheral participation
  • closely follow a conversation
  • contribute to a conversation

To warm up the participants to online collaboration, I explained some of the benefits that we aim to deliver at OnlineGroups.Net:

  • To overcome barriers to face to face collaboration:
    • geographic
    • inter-organisational
    • scheduling
  • To overcome limitationsof face to face collaboration:
    • holding multiple concurrent conversations
    • keeping records for re-use and audit purposes

For the purposes of the research questions that I planned to ask, I asked participants to respond according to what they perceived as typical in their work world.

We Are Stuck with Email

Use of Email

We started by looking at how much people use email for collaboration. I asked people to rate use of email on two criteria.

  1. The proportion of the time that the active window on the computer has email in it.
  2. Of that time, the proportion of the time is spent doing ongoing conversations in a group of three or more.

The responses were as follows.

Email Time Spent Doing Many-to- Many Collaboration in Groups of Three or More
100%
                     
90%
                     
80%
                     
70%
         
1
         
60%
     
1
   
1
1
     
50%
             
1
     
40%
         
1
         
30%
   
1
 
1
 
2
       
20%
   
1
     
1
       
10%
 
1
1
               
0%
                     
   
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
70%
80%
90%
100%
   
Computer Time Spent Using Email

From this I could tentatively conclude that people spend between a quarter and a half of their computer time using email. The more people use email, the more they use email for many-to-many collaboration.

Availability of Alternatives to Email

I asked the participants to rate the statement “People in organisations have to use email for many-to-many collaboration in groups of three or more”. Their responses were as follows.

Strongly Agree
Agree
Neutral
Disagree
Strongly Disagree
1
10
1
3
 

So, that is a yes.

To investigate this more, I would like to explore what happens with attempts to introduce an alternative to email. I have a hunch that if one critical participant refuses to adopt the new system, the whole group gets pulled back to email.

Email Collaboration is Difficult

Here are the participants’ rating of the statement “Many-to-many collaboration in groups of three or more using email is difficult”.

Strongly Agree
Agree
Neutral
Disagree
Strongly Disagree
1
10
3
1
 

Again, they mostly agreed with the statement.

The main issues described were these:

  • Unclear and unstable group membership – the wrong person ends up receiving the email, or the wrong person gets left out of it (it is the sender, not the recipient, that gets to choose who can keep in the loop).
  • Unclear flow of conversation.

Participants told several stories of email-trails spreading, branching and mutating. Wouldn’t it be interesting to map the path of an email thread as makes its way through an organisation!

Email Makes People Collaborate Less

So, people have to use email to collaborate, but email collaboration is difficult. So, that would make people collaborate less, right?

Here is the groups’ rating of the statement: “In order to avoid the difficulty of collaborating using email, people in organisations avoid collaboration”.

Strongly Agree
Agree
Neutral
Disagree
Strongly Disagree
 
1
4
7
3

This one I did not expect. Apparently the pain of collaborating with email is not putting people off. But they wouldn’t necessarily do any more collaboration if it was easier.

Conclusion

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.

4 Responses to “Is Email Killing Collaboration?”

  1. andrewnim

    Your results seem to indicate an attitude of well its what we use and we all use outlook so what can you do?
    Email is terrible as a true communication tool, its use is in recording communication outside of an organisation (across bondareis) to create a governance record. Internally there is a tool which provides far better communication, its called a meeting room (both real or digital). The problem is that many people dont do very well in meetings and try to hide behind email.

    One thing you did not ask, how many people hide behind email, what has been called decision by email. Though I doubt they would admit it.

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