Last week I got into a discussion with a few people on Twitter about email as a collaboration system. It started when I sent a foolish tweet:
RT @lehawes: Email is not a collaboration system!! It is a communication system.
People started getting riled up. Some solid points were made about people using it for collaboration, but my point was that people using email for collaboration doesn’t make it a collaboration system. I collaborate using the phone, but it isn’t a collaboration system.
I decided that a post was needed to fully explain the difference as 140 characters is just too limiting.
Remember Sugar Cereals?
When I was a kid, I would watch cartoons. There would always be several ads for some sugary breakfast cereal being pitched by an animated character. They would always say “Sugar Cereal X, part of this nutritious breakfast!” During this statement, a picture of the following would be displayed:
- Bowl of Sugar Cereal X, complete with a box of Sugar Cereal X in the background.
- Slice of toast
- Scrambled eggs
- Glass of OJ
- Piece of Fruit
- Glass of milk (optional)
- Few slices of bacon (optional)
Here’s the thing, when you bought said cereal, you just ate the cereal. You didn’t have it with eggs, bacon, or fruit. You might have a glass of OJ, or some other juice, but you usually didn’t as the sugary milk left in the bowl quenched any actual thirst. Even today, Kellogg’s suggests that a healthy breakfast that includes cereal should have a glass of milk and a banana.
The point here is that just because I had cereal, and only cereal, for breakfast doesn’t mean I was getting what I needed for breakfast. It satisfied the need to not be hungry, but I wasn’t getting all the nutrition that I needed. Cereal works better as part of a complete breakfast.
Email as Cereal of Collaboration
Email is a great communication system. I can send someone a message and send them files for them to interact with at their leisure. I can take communications and forward them to people that need to see the same piece of communication. It is wonderfully effective.
I can use it to collaborate. I can send a document to someone and they can review it and send it back to me.
But is email a Collaboration System? No!
Try having ten people look at a document, or just a few with several iterations. Try involving someone part-way through a collaborative process when they aren’t on the email chain and see how hard it is to get them on all of the “Reply Alls”. What about linking emails so that they are related, even when they aren’t in the same thread, including both sent and received?
When collaborating with someone outside your organization can you just give them an account to use the same calendar and public folders? Probably not, so you just copy them on items and hope that you are on email systems that trade artifacts well.
Email is not a collaboration system. It is great for the occasional collaborative efforts, and quite useful when use with a real collaborative solution for Alerts, Invitations, Notifications, and other nifty features. It just isn’t built to host a full-fledge collaborative project.
Remember when Morgan Spurlock made the movie Super Size Me about eating McDonald’s for 30 days? He gained a lot of weight and had some liver damage. McDonald’s isn’t that bad for you, as long as you eat it in moderation. Living off of the sugary breakfast cereals would probably have a worse impact on someone’s body, but having the occasional bowl won’t doom you.
Email is the same way, fine for occasional collaboration, but when you need to collaborate a lot, you need to get a real collaboration system.
As a side note…I wonder what non-cereal breakfast foods would match different parts of a collaboration system? Twitter=Bacon? SharePoint=Slimfast? eRoom=Ovaltine? What would be the eggs?