Working Seamlessly Together: Collaboration Lessons from EmailA couple of months ago, I shared a vision where all information was at our fingertips. It's a nice vision for the future of work but we have a more immediate problem:

How do I collaborate with Jed in Toledo?

There have been a lot of solutions proposed. Historically they have involved software solutions that require me to work on a document on my computer, upload it to a collaboration system and wait for Jed. He will then add comments, upload a new version or do both.

The likely answer if Jed and I don’t work for the same company is that we'll use email. After all this time, email is still the most used collaboration tool. Maybe instead of declaring email as dead, we should examine why email works and apply that to our efforts to improve collaboration.

Email is Brilliant, Except …

Have you ever stopped to think about why email is so pervasive in your life? It is actually quite simple. You can collaborate with anyone, anywhere and get things done. Nobody is forced to use the same application, operating system or device, yet all can use email. It is universally available.

When was the last time you were worried about what email application the person on the other end of your email was using? I think it was sometime in the '90s for me.

It is those same features that allow things to quickly get out of control.

  • Which message has the latest version?
  • When two or more people make simultaneous edits, how do you merge them?
  • What happens when someone just hits Reply versus Reply All or vice versa?
  • As communication threads diverge, cross and converge again, how do you keep the comments in the body of the emails straight?
  • How do you stop someone from accidentally, or purposely, entering an email address for someone who shouldn’t see what is happening?

It can be a challenge using email to collaborate on only one document. When you start juggling multiple email threads around different documents at the same time it gets complicated. The challenges grow exponentially until the concept of managing the process becomes a dream.

Lessons from Email

What can we take from the ease with which people collaborate with email? Simply put, allow people to collaborate with the tools that they are comfortable using. Email is comfortable. Email is powered by the SMTP protocol.