I know Nikhil and I try quite hard to articulate what we see as the obvious benefits of going beyond email. In today's post I want to say why email is not enough, if you're looking to build a connected, learning organisation.
Collaboration happens across a spectrum
"When you don't know what you don't know, you should hang out with people who may already know."
I recently read John Seely Brown's book - the Power of Pull. If you've followed this blog in recent weeks, you may remember that I was privileged to meet him at DevLearn 2010, where he kicked off the conference with a keynote on a pull based knowledge economy. Brown looks at collaboration across three separate levels, which I view as part of a spectrum. When people know what they don't know, they want the opportunity to access knowledge by either searching for it or asking other people. This is where email and search can come in handy. The trouble is, that often people don't know what they don't know. This is where Brown talks about the concept of a spike - concentrations of talent around the world. He talks about how musicians gravitate to Nashville and how software engineers go to Bangalore or Silicon Valley. When you're in the area of innovation for a field of your choice, you learn accidentally. The stream of information around you creates the phenomenon of serendipity.
The most important part of the collaboration spectrum however is co-creation. A groups that just generates a lot of conversaton is what I call a "hot-air community". The talk needs to culminate in some action. When people discover new ideas, concepts, tips and tricks -- all this needs to come together in some form palatable for new members of the community or even those not part of the discussion. The value of a community's knowledge economy is in the useful work that it's members put out.
It's not all about the content
Mailing lists generate a lot of content. Questions and answers, interesting musings, controversial views - they have it all. As someone on mailing lists for ages, I've always struggled with the lack of context though. Let me explain. An answer on a mailing forum isn't enough. I could search through an archive and find that answer, but the metadata around it is what matters. For example, how valuable was that answer? What kind of other topics does that conversation relate to? Who wrote this response - what is her role, what are her interests? Where else does she contribute? How can I get to see more of her contributions?
Context gives us the answers content cannot. I've written earlier about the importance of metadata on enterprise 2.0 systems and frankly - email doesn't provide the metadata we need to provide context to our conversations. We need rich metadata and people profiles to augment our conversations.
The walls are not the truth
Mailing lists are an example of walled gardens. Just because you have a mailing group for developers doesn't mean that only developers have the answers. Emergent practice needs divergent thinking. As Scott Page says quite eloquently, diverse groups of smart people outperform an alpha group of specialists when the problem they're solving is sufficiently complex. So, if the only representation of an analyst community is a mailing list of people, then we run the risk of assuming the mailing list as the people who have the answers. This is often not true, because answers can often come from the most unexpected sources. Conversations need to be out in the open, to give solution providers the best chance of finding the problem they can solve.
Membership doesn't indicate subscription
Personalisation is key aspect of getting the most out of our public internet experience. Even if I subscribe to a mailing group, I may not care about everything everyone in the group says. Mailing lists lock people into a stream of communication that they may or may not like to subscribe to. I can say for myself that I usually just value a few people's voices. On the public internet I filter my input by following only the people and conversations that I'm interested in. I look through activity streams and jump into conversations through a matter of choice. I think of it as being akin to sitting by a flowing river -- I don't need to drink all the water in it. I just dip my toe when I feel like it. Email doesn't allow following people or following interesting conversation. This is where the Facebook activity stream paradigm comes in handy. I get emails, but only when I join a conversation. In fact, I can control what kind of alerts my activity streams generate for me, not the other way around. Control emerges from informed choices - rich profiles, followership, tagging, etc.
Email integration is key to engagement but not the end all
I believe centering your learning strategy purely around email is a mistake. Andrew McAfee clearly mentions that people's resistance to move beyond email and groupware comes from what Richard Thaler has called the endowment effect - we value what we have significantly more than newer items, especially if the new item will substitute what we already have. McAfee also mentions that email is a channel technology - designed to keep conversations private. Web 2.0 technology such as wikis, blogs, media sharing, microblogging however are platform technologies. "They accumulate content over time and make it visible and accessible to all community members." I also argue that beyond the content they provide far more context around what you see. Now this is not to say that we need to ditch email and move on - that would be a change management nightmare. The key is to leverage email in a manner that it draws users to the platform. Simple transition paths like being able to contribute via email, are crucial. That provides a simple transition path for those resisting change.
While backward compatibility with email is a challenge at a lot of Enterprise 2.0 projects (from the look of it), I find it surprising how little I use email in my personal life. I mostly stay in touch with people over Facebook and Twitter. The fact is that I keep putting off all emails I need to write on a personal level. It's way too heavyweight for the way I like to communicate. In my immediate team, we exchange very few emails because we mostly stay in touch over Yammer. We end up using Yammer and use email only for channel oriented communication.
Am I downplaying the benefits of email? I'll be curious if we'd have been keen on email if the de-facto standard of the world was collaboration platforms. I seriously doubt it. What do you think? How are you getting over the email problem?