Sun-TzuIn July of 2008 I wrote a post called Kill Email, Move to a Platform of Pages and Applications/Widgets. A lot has happened since then. I've had the opportunity to offer a seminar with Socialtext's Scott Schnaars about gaining value from communication and collaboration tools (we were kinder and "put email in its place" rather than trying to kill it in public) and the collaboration offerings, for the most part, keep getting better.

I think it's time to revisit the issues in light of these changes, and in light of peoples' experience with reducing their reliance on email. Gary Orenstein's recent post, The Cloud Collaboration Wars Ramp Up, sets the stage:

Cloud collaboration has now expanded beyond the core of e-mail communications to include social networking, group content creation and management, presentation sharing, project management, integrated voice and video, calendaring, scheduling and more. Let’s take a look at the big players and other possible entrants....

Luis Suarez, an IBMer who has worked for two years to create a "world without email," shows us how it can be done. Luis has a real job, at a real company, and yet has gotten his email traffic down to 14 per week! He does it by being an evangelist for collaboration and knowledge management (I think that actually is his job) and helping people find better ways to work. No, this isn't always easy for him, but it does seem to be working and his following grows. Jeremy Sluyters, Director of Business and Collaboration Systems at JMP Engineering Inc, also gives us a real-world window into how each of us can can play a role in work transformation. From his blog:

I was onsite with a customer making some changes to their production system, and I was trying to figure out how to get a “program running” status from a robot, and pass it to a usable input on my controller. I posted this question on, a site I have recently started for the controls and automation community. Since this site is just starting out, I also emailed a couple people that I knew would know the answer, and included a link to the question. And I knew who could help me because I have been in this business for a long time – how many times do you know exactly who to ask to get an answer? The next morning I had two answers to my question, and was able to map the status from the robot to the controller. Yes email would have worked just fine, but now this question and answer is alive and well in the cloud, and one day if you ask Google about monitoring the program running status of a Fanuc robot, you might just get that answer. By the way, at the time I asked Google the same question and did not get anything close to the answer. If you ask now, Google will give you the right answer!

For all my efforts to shift to a world of collaboration platforms, I still dealt with 13 emails in the first hour of my day. Four of them were signals (as per Andy McAfee's SLATES acronym for Enterprise 2.0 technologies) -- these let me know about changes that had been made on a wiki, and that a stock price had moved.

Signals emails are good. As long as email is part of work, it serves as a great dashboard for tracking signals that can trigger your attention to particular collaboration platforms to do the actual work. Two other emails were short coordination questions that would have been great for Twitter (if Twitter had an easy way to direct message multiple people).

The other five were interesting as they were from a group where we've actually tried to find a way to use a collaboration platform and failed. This is a cross-organization, cross-interest, cross-level of technical experience project with shifting membership. We've stuck with the lowest common denominator (for now!) and I dutifully cut and paste the info into a wiki.

The idea is that email is not for doing work (see Sluyters' example above regarding the value-add if the work is done within the community's platform). Email is good for signals (especially automated ones). Email is good for initial contacts -- though often those emails end up failing as they are trapped by spam filters. Email may even be good for mass communication across multiple communities, but wouldn't it be better if we just cross-posted the information to the communities' sites?

My current strategy is to be open with project collaborators about my preference for working via collaboration platforms. I strive to use my systems savvy and explicitly consider the technical and organizational realities with each group. I've sent emails discussing alternative forms of communication to my University President and have had thoughtful conversations with his communications director about our students' work settings and whether or not we are effectively preparing them given how workflow is managed on campus. I tend to take the initiative and simply set up a project site when asked to participate in something new. I can't say that I'm always successful in shifting the project work to the site, but I hope that by raising awareness I at least bring us one step closer to more effective and efficient communication and workflow. One project at a time...