Who says email is no longer an effective means of collaboration?

In yet another article slamming email, and lamenting the lack of alternatives, Robert Barmorth writes, in Collaborative conversation in the post-email enterprise:

Email is no longer an effective means of collaboration and some companies have even banned it – but what is the alternative?

In the relatively short time of the couple of decades email has been widely used, it has migrated from a useful, simple universal communication tool to a burden.

Who says email no longer an effective means of collaboration? Email is the favourite scapegoat for the ills of the connected workplace. It is email, not digital technology in general that has caused work to follow us home. It is email, not being able to keep tabs on so much more activity than ever before, that causes overload.

We want people to do more because with digital technology they can. So they have more to do. You want to be involved in things, you get information to deal with. The basic amount of information that there is to deal with can be tweaked, but is on the whole more or less incompressible.

Some the tasks fit some media better than others. Video-conferencing, IM, project tools and so on can all optimise information management for certain types of task. But regular work throws up a spectrum of tasks that fit a spectrum of tools, kind of. There is always an imperfect fit, and always a degree of social hacking to adapt each tool to the tasks that its users have. I agree with Robert Barmforth as he goes on to write:

So many individuals are already using their favourite consumer products to share and communicate with friends that applying organisational management might have to move into the area of federation rather than alternative.

The gains of one imperfect tool over another are offset by the effort required to switch the message queue from one tool to another. Often it is simply people’s preferences — or habits — that are the main determinant of what they use. This is no more the case with any tool than with email. It is so useful because it is so used. That gets email the place it has as the glue in this burgeoning ecosystem of tool. It is email that does the federation. And it weeds out the chaff, because if a tool isn’t working, its users revert back to using email.

Email is of course highly imperfect. Its versatility ensures that it is optimised for almost nothing. It has a particular weakness as a group collaboration tool. Reply-all discussions quickly decay into a mess where it is impossible to follow who has said what. One easy way to mitigate this problem is email groups such as Google Groups and our own OnlineGroups.net. They provide an entity for a group with an email address and an inbox. They provide consistent membership and privacy and a structure that makes it easy to have concurrent conversations.

Email groups play nicely in an ecosystem of tools federated by email as they use email as their primary interface. Accepting email as incumbent, email groups leverage its strengths and mitigate its weaknesses.

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