Working Seamlessly Together: Collaboration Lessons from Email
A 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.

It is too much to hope for a standard similar to SMTP to make collaboration as universal as email. The creation of such a standard would be a complicated process and the resulting specification could easily become a convoluted nightmare. Even if people could agree, it would take years to develop while the world continued to rapidly change around us.

What Now?

The answer lies in the cloud. It is a central place that anyone can leverage and access. If I want to collaborate with Jed today, I can readily invite him to work with me in the Alfresco Cloud. If he wants to work with me, he can invite me to his preferred tool, such as Google Drive. Ideally we would pick one place to work on all of our efforts. While advanced collaboration features come at a price, basic collaboration is generally free for all.

What makes this attractive is the return of the desktop application. In the '90s, every system had a application on the desktop. With the advent of web technology, everything moved to the browser except for basic productivity applications. The goal was to ease the requirements on the desktop and centralize enterprise applications.

Over the next decade, everyone continued to struggle with collaboration on basic documents. Then smart phones arrived and reminded everyone of the power of the native application.

Learning Opportunities

Natively is how people want to collaborate. Collaboration is about working together to be more productive. Collaboration-enabling tools needs to be connected to our other productivity tools in order to streamline the process.

That is our future. We will be collaborating natively and not in siloed systems. Collaboration will not be somewhere we go to perform. It will be part of our everyday fabric.

It is already starting to work like that on our mobile devices. Our desktops and laptops are next.

Universal Harmony is Not Imminent

Like email, there is unlikely to ever be one single solution. As universal as email has become, there are still many application options for people. The difference is that in collaboration, we are going to have to accept working on different solutions simultaneously.

This will change one day. The industry will eventually create a standard protocol that will allow them to communicate with each other. That day is likely far away as the vendors will not take the time to create such standards until the days of rapid growth in cloud collaboration end.

Between now and then, expect to see more and more capability to arrive for your laptop and desktops. Expect to collaborate natively where you work and not separately. Collaboration, when done right, is simple for all parties involved.

Simple means collaborating seamlessly as you work, not in addition to your work.

Title image by Krivosheev Vitaly (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Laurence in Instead of Fighting Content Management, Simplify It