It was over 20 years ago now.I was a young hotshot IT guy and the company I was working for needed to communicate to Asia and Eastern Europe.My boss latched on to a Novell MHS (Mail Handling System)-based solution called Coordinator by Action Technologies.Coordinator was later sold to DaVinci which at that time sold a competing product in the Novell MHS-based email world.It was truly a store and forward time when we would deliver messages through CompuServe -- in addition to direct international long distance phone calls.

The important part of the Coordinator software was that it was based on the ideas in the book "On Computers and Cognition" by Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd.What made it unique was that it mapped email messages into a set of different types of communication, which matched the idea that an organization is a network of commitments and most messages are seeking some sort of a commitment.Sometimes the commitment request was for an answer and other times for a meeting or an action.As a part of sending a message you specified when you needed a response and the system automatically managed reminders for those things -- and removed those reminders when folks responded.

The net effect of the system was that you could really use the email program as a way to manage your tasks -- and your commitments with your coworkers.It was amazing and I can still feel the impact of having started with Coordinator as a mail system I used.Today, I still treat my inbox as a “to do” list.If you send me an email I’ll triage it into an immediate response, a thing to file, or something that I’ll have to spend more time and energy to respond to.

All of this comes to mind as there’s been some fanfare response to IBM’s Mail Next announcement at their Connections conference.While it’s clear that this tool is still very much vaporware, it’s a powerful reimagining of the typical mail experience that we’re used to today.

Everything Old is New Again

Looking at IBM’s Mail Next, I saw the tasks front and center (ok, bottom center) in the dashboard-like display of its interface.I flashed back to the main screen in the Coordinator.I realized that email had again become so overwhelming that it is necessary to refocus on the things that we need to get done -- not just clearing out our inbox from the spam that is generated.

As much as I make Microsoft Outlook work for me -- I do it by working around the limitations and bemoaning those that I can’t work around.For instance, I route large blocks of my incoming mail to folders by automatic rules so I don’t have to think about them.I’m sitting with over 5,500 messages from LinkedIn that I’ve never read.I had over 15,000 messages from my UPSs on the servers because one of them had a battery issue and was trying -- unsuccessfully -- to get my attention. In my quest to manage my noise level and deal with things that were important I managed to hide an important problem.

However, there are things Outlook won’t do for me -- and neither will Dynamics CRM for that matter.I won’t be reminded when someone doesn’t respond to a message of mine.I won’t be encouraged to add someone as a contact after I’ve communicated with them a few times.I certainly won’t be encouraged to respond to reach out to a contact that I’ve not spoken to in a while.

Coordinator didn’t do some of this -- but it was quite good at reminding me when I had someone who hadn’t followed up in the time I had specified and when I needed to respond to someone else.This appears to be a large part of what the new Mail Next is about -- managing tasks so that you don’t accidentally forget to do them based on the volume of social interactions in which you’re participating.

Learning Opportunities

Center of the Connection Universe

Of course, the world has moved on in the last 20 years and the communication and interaction game isn’t only email anymore.We’ve got numerous ways that we interact with others.As a result while email is the center of the known communication universe, we still have to contend with blogging, microblogging, social networking, instant messaging and a variety of variants, in how we communicate with one another.IBM’s Mail Next seems positioned to bring together disparate channels of communication into one dashboard.

The reality is that we have conversations with people -- often multiple conversations going on with the same people.Sometimes you just want to pivot your perspective from the detailed noise of the inbox to conversations with people.The “person view” creates a way to do that pivot and to see what you have going on with someone -- perhaps allowing you to decide to do a chat, schedule a meeting or find a way to get better aligned.

There are also some topics that are important to others that aren’t important to you.This is particularly true if you’re cc’don a thread.It’s possible to mute threads that you’re not interested in so you’re not seeing them flash by you.

Sometimes it’s not just about a single person, but it’s about where that person sits in the organization relative to you, and the conversations you’ve got going on with their subordinates, peers and management.That’s when it’s time to bring up a map of the person you’re communicating with to be able to get your bearings on how the conversation is or should be going.

Mail Last

The features, as described, for Mail Next are compelling. It’s a way to help deal with the information overload that we are all coping with.Time will tell whether the solution comes into existence asit’s envisioned today, but whether it does or not, there are some great opportunities to think differently about how we process email.I had better get back to my inbox, for now.

Title image by TACstock1 (Shutterstock)