If you don't agree on how to collaborate with other people before you actually start collaborating with them, chances are you will soon find yourself in a situation that can best be described as a "collaborative mess". Why? You guessed it -- because you will resort back to ad-hoc, email-based collaboration.

Although email is an excellent communication tool in many situations, it is usually a bad tool when it comes to collaboration. The main reasons can be found in the fact that email is not bound to a group and that it does not provide your group with a shared workspace.

This basically makes email an inappropriate tool for collaboration use cases such as managing shared resources, coauthoring content, reviewing content, coordinating tasks and having many-to-many conversations. Using email for these things will lead to messy situations which require a lot of effort to keep under control.

Find Complementary Tools for Collaborative Use Cases

Before we start to collaborate, we need find and agree on tools better suited for collaboration. These need to be tools that all participants can access and use without much investment and effort. Questions that must be answered before we start to collaborate include:

  • How do we coauthor content?
  • How do we make the reviewing process as easy as possible?
  • Where do we share resources with each other so that we all have access to the same resources?
  • How do we inform each other when it is someone's turn to contribute?
  • How do we know what the other team members are doing?
  • How do we coordinate planning, execution and follow-up on tasks?
  • How do we have many-to-many conversations?

I am not arguing for replacing email altogether. Email is, in fact, a universal standard for text-based asynchronous communication today. Just like telephony, email is a key part of the communication infrastructure and will be used in practically every situation that requires us to use some kind of communication technology. That is something we will have to accept.

What we do need to do is to make sure that email is only used in cases that it is well suited for. We need to introduce complementary tools for doing other things in a better way. Paradoxically, those tools need to share many of the characteristics with email that has made it as successful and omnipresent as it is today -- such as, ease of use, access from any device and the ability to be unhindered by corporate firewalls.

Many of the popular internet-based collaboration tools fulfill these requirements, while many of the traditional collaboration technologies -- such as groupware and document management systems -- do not.

Make An Agreement And Stick To It

Since there is no universal standard for use cases such as coauthoring, it is essential to decide and agree upon which tools to use and how to use them before starting to collaborate. If you decide to use a wiki, it’s not enough to provide everybody access -- you also need to decide and agree upon how to use it. Each participant has to commit to follow the agreement, and any new individual who joins later on needs to do so as well. The moment you allow someone to break that agreement, the whole setup might crumble into ad hoc email-based collaboration.

A collaboration initiative is destined to fail or result in a collaborative mess when formal or informal leaders don't sign the collaboration agreement. The reason is simple -- they have the formal or informal authority to command or influence the behaviors of others. If they don't buy into something, they have the power to destroy it. They become a destructive force that hinders not just the improvement of existing collaborative practices, but also the transformation towards a more collaborative culture.

If you are a formal and informal leader and want to improve collaboration practices within your team or organization, then you need to work hard to enable and reach these agreements. Equally important is that you walk the talk once the agreement is made, because your followers will look at you when deciding what to do. If you don't stick to the agreement, then why should they?