The First Step Toward Collaboration Is to Stop E-Mailing

June 2009
By Christopher J. Dorobek

E-mail works well for person-to-person communication but today there are better options.

Many of us remember when we first got an e-mail account. If you were anything like me, you received a personal e-mail address and then later an AOL account—well before you had e-mail access at work. In a way, it was a very early indication of the world to come, where the consumer market truly leads the enterprise market. Today, most people will admit that they can do much more on their home computers than they can on their “clunky machines” at work.

Initially, I was baffled by e-mail. Did it mean that I had to leave my computer on so it could “receive” the electronic mail? And, as shocking as it may seem now, all types of questions arose in agencies about whether e-mail was necessary. The General Services Administration (GSA), under then-administrator David J. Barram, was one of the first agencies to ensure that each person in the organization had e-mail—on Flag Day 1996. The GSA press release headline read, “GSA Employees Join Super Information Highway through Intranet.”

Barram’s quote in the release, dated June 14, 1996, states that, “Using this tool called Internet, companies, governments and individuals around the world are inventing exciting new ways to do their work, improve service to their customers, and communicate with each other,” Barram said today. “I believe that use of the Internet will be a key competitiveness factor for GSA in the coming years and that GSA employees must begin to learn how this new resource can change the way we do business.”

One of my favorite parts of the release is that GSA representatives felt inclined to offer a definition of the Internet. The “Internet is known as the global communications network and it is being called by many experts the most promising avenue for business in existence today. Through the use of Internet, companies and government agencies worldwide are finding exciting new ways to serve their customers and communicate with each other,” the GSA release stated.

E-mail revolutionized the way we communicate. Unfortunately, since then, we try to use e-mail as a collaboration tool. We used it as such in the 1990s, and it helped us then because we did not have other tools. But other options are available to us today.

In the end, e-mail simply is an electronic version of mail: it provides person-to-person communication. And because e-mail is remarkably efficient at that communication, we began using it for all kinds of communication. The result is that we are flooded with e-mail to the point of being almost overwhelmed. E-mail has led us to engage in Faustian bargains—if we go on a week-long vacation, do we check our mail a few times during the trip, or do we deal with the e-mail tsunami when we return?

E-mail also is inefficient. We all have been on those e-mail lists where we are one of scores of people who have been electronically carbon copied, or “cc’d.” And then, going back and finding the one piece of data in an e-mail chain can be almost impossible.

But my biggest concern is that e-mail simply is not a collaborative tool despite our attempts to turn it into one. It is a tool that allows people to send messages to each other efficiently, but it does not enable people to come together around issues; it does not build networks; and it does not share information among a group. And in the end, our misconception of e-mail undercuts the collaboration and information sharing that agencies are trying to encourage.

The interesting element is that young people innately understand this, and they are moving away from e-mail. They increasingly are using platforms such as Facebook to communicate within a more open framework that is more collaborative and where one can build collections of people who want to work together on specific issues.

Yet people in general are remarkably reluctant to give up e-mail. I find this is most prevalent among managers, many of whom are still hinged to a top-down management style. What they need to realize is that the new collaborative platforms are coming to the enterprise environment too. The remarkable work being done in the intelligence community with Intellipedia is not only a model for government but also a model for many groups of how collaboration can work across large organizations.

My challenge to users is to think before sending an e-mail and ask the simple question: “Is this the best tool for what I am trying to accomplish?” In many cases, much better options are available. Blogs can be used for speaking to large groups of people, but they also create a place where a conversation can happen around topics. Wikis are collaborative workplaces where people can share information and ideas. And other capabilities are popping up every day.

Better tools for collaboration are available. It is time to thank e-mail and move on.

Christopher J. Dorobek is a co-anchor on The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Washington, D.C.’s Federal News Radio 1500 AM.

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