Inbox Document Management 

One coworker recently answered, “if it’s really important, put the subject line in all caps.” I asked around to find how other people alter tools to help better collaborate. It turns out people have been using their email inboxes in some fascinating ways. One sends empty emails with one line reminders in the subject line: “board chair,” “Arlington,” “zombies” (I didn't ask). Many tend to use email as the “primary storage” for the documents and assets they reference most.

Why? According to one colleague, it’s

because I remember a document better as part of a larger conversation. It’s easier to find the discussion by searching the subject or participants than it is to find it on a drive somewhere. The email conversation really gives the document some metadata.”

As much as some seem to be using inboxes for document and to-do list management, the opposite is true, too. Overwhelmed by the volume of emails, a colleague admitted to carrying on conversations about the organization’s budgeting processes completely within the commentating feature of their document sharing system “so that they conversation wouldn’t get lost in some endless thread, but stayed right with the document in question.”

Design-thinking experts call these fixes “disruption by design.” They’ll tell you that “it’s not the thing, it’s what the thing makes us do.” In short, how a tool is actually used – as opposed to how it’s designed to be used -- can tell us a lot about the challenges people still find amid an abundance of features and improvements.

Learning Opportunities

Focus on the Process, Not the Tool

When considering the perfect blend of communication, asset management, task tracking and knowledge management tools, try not to fixate on what people “should” be doing, consider your organization’s processes first. Though they’re quite different, it’s easy to equate tools with processes. Here are some questions you can ask to help you draw a distinction between the two:

  1. Where? These days, people tend to work best with information they receive “in the usual places.” Find out where those places are, rather than creating a new place to check.
  2. Who? How many people a piece of information needs to go through for approval may help you decide how important features like real-time collaboration or version control are. Ask questions like: What is the flow of review and approval in your organization?
  3. When? For urgent information, you’ll want to consider real time tools, like chat programs or those with notification systems. For information being conveyed on more of an “FYI” level, email or a more trendy “news feed” of posts might be a better option. Think of it this way: is this information you want treated more like a text message or more like a Facebook update?
  4. How? Knowing that “everyone needs to be in a real-time chat during work hours” versus allowing teams to “manage your inbox as you wish, but communicate in a timely manner” is important. Uniform processes most often necessitate uniform systems, so knowing the rules can help you choose the tools. Be sure to ask:Are there processes that must be done uniformly across the organization?

For all the apps and features that you could choose, you need to know which ones will truly get used, when and by whom. Some workplaces might collaborate best through streams of social updates or robust document versioning systems, while others may think for now that the subject line of an email is the most powerful collaboration tool there is.Sure, it isn't a very whiz-bang feature, but it does the trick.I think most of us feel we can do a lot better than our inboxes and subject lines for collaboration, but the tool should follow an understanding of process, not the other way around.

Focusing on process before tools can eliminate unnecessary costs and countless hours of spent on implementation and training. Most importantly, it can prevent the question of "the functionality of this new tool is great, but how do we actually get people to use it?" Hacking our current collaboration tools isn't the work of the technologically challenged or the unwilling-to-collaborate -- it’s the work around of the adapters, designers and optimizers in all of us.

Title image by magerleagues (Flickr) via a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license