This Guest paper was submitted for publication and is Copyright B.M. Jackson (2005).
Published here September 2005.

Abstract | Introduction | Why Email Won't Work
Why Collaborative Technologies Haven't Worked | Technology Requirements
The New Team Heart Beat | Meeting Process Redesign | Creative Work Redesign and Prototyping
Changes, New Behaviors | Training | The Virtual Organization | Conclusion

Why Email Won't Work

While the most common way of moving ideas, thoughts, decisions, and documents around in today's teams is through Email, it has several shortcomings that make it a poor choice for being the primary platform for team communication. From a team memory perspective, Email is like a sieve from which valuable information leaks out.

The following are key problems in using Email to support teams:

Not group memory
By definition, an inbox is an individual's memory and only accessible by that individual. At best, one team member can forward a series of Emails to a new team member as a way to share pieces of information to bring them up-to-speed.

Fragmented threaded conversations
People send messages to the whole team. Several members will then "reply-to-all" which creates different versions of an Email thread intermingled with other messages. Further, it makes it difficult to see the status of certain types of communication, such as an issue under discussion.

Assumes communication needs are same for all members
Different team members have different communication needs both in content and time. An Email sent to the team may be beneficial for a few members at the time it was sent. However, other members may benefit from that piece of communication in a few weeks time. While others may not know it will be useful and it turns out to be critical in a few months. By this time it is difficult for team members to remember where it is in their inbox!

Intentional or not, team members can send messages to just a few members of the team. The other team members may have something to contribute to the conversation, but often there is value in just being aware of the conversation.

Poor contextualization
While many categorize Email into sub-folders, the "reply" culture of Email, creates strings of "RE: subject header". This is useful in putting together the fragmented threads, but when reviewing the subject lines to determine if the message is one that is relevant, the subject line is of no help. That means that the individual must open many Emails to track down the required information. Moreover, there are no associations between Email messages, documents, and objectives.

Poor communication tool for planning
The bible for a team is its action plan that lays out the team's objectives with the assignments of who will do what by when. Prior to information technology, planning was a pencil and paper exercise with frequent meetings to collect status. With the advent of Email, team members send updates, or more likely the team leader hounds them to send updates, on the status of their actions. The team leader must then collate the different messages, again intermingled in his or her inbox, and then re-enter updates to a master plan, which may be in a spreadsheet, word processing document, or project management software.

Poor support for creative processes
This includes lack of support for idea generation, ranking and rating ideas, viewing results, and building upon them. The true benefits of working together as a team are found by building on each member's strengths. While initial ideas can be surfaced in Email, they quickly run into the fragmented threaded conversation problem. Further, members cannot easily rank them and view them in an ordered list in order to work with them further.

Poor tool for managing documents
Most often, team members will send a version of a document to multiple people for review and editing. The problem becomes one of determining who has the latest version. If two people decide to edit the document at the same time, there will be two different versions of the document as a result. Someone will then have to carefully review both versions to create a combined third document.

Does it mean that there is not a role for Email? No, communication that is infrequent is best done with Email because those individuals are not part of the team's digital group memory. It, as well as instant messaging, is extremely powerful as an alerting mechanism when communication is urgent. Ironically, because of Email's success, it is has become a less powerful medium because of the volume of non-urgent information that gets distributed.

Introduction  Introduction

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