Thinking beyond e-mail
Over the past couple of years there have been a number of what I call ‘eureka moments’… that moment when the usually-invisible light bulb above your head switches on and you either “get it” or something resonates. One such moment was a couple of years ago when I saw Charlie Hill (now an IBM Distinguished Engineer and the Chief Technology Officer of Lotus software) talking about and demonstrating ‘Activities’, which have since become part of IBM Lotus Connections.
Activities are a simple premise. People work on business activities (duh, yeah) and these business activities are comprised of lots of different pieces of information and content which often derive from and live in different places – for example e-mails, calendar appointments, documents, tasks, web pages, instant messaging chat transcripts, and so on. So an activity is a ‘place’ for bringing the team together and sharing the content. You may ask why that can’t be done in a TeamRoom, Quickr place or some other collaborative solution. Well, it can. The point here is that an activity is something which is quick and easy to set up, to add members to, and is suitable for the smallest of tasks right up to something which is more involved and longer in duration. You might set up an activity just to review a document or plan one meeting. You might set up an activity to plan an entire event (as we have done with Lotusphere Comes To You). If however your project is going to last for a year you might be better off with a Quickr place.
A more recent eureka moment came when the feature set of Lotus Sametime Advanced was announced. Some of the features (i.e. the broadcast suite) were already familiar to IBM folk since they had been available internally as the IBM Community Tools. The big new feature as far as I was concerned was chat rooms. For me to explain this fully, you need some background, and that background concerns e-mail.
Ask anyone what their major issues are where e-mail is concerned and they’ll generally say two things… the first is the sheer volume they receive, and the second is the number of file attachments. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll actually discover a more fundamental set of problems… people are hooked on e-mail, they spend a lot of time watching their inbox, and they are very reactive to what comes in. To quote the Butler Group, the overloaded inbox creates a “false sense of panic”. People forget their business priorities and focus on making sure they keep their inbox in check, even if they’re dealing with trivial, less pressing items to do so. Where companies impose size quotas people have the added worry about their total mail box size going over the limit, so they spend time ensuring the size is kept in check rather than focusing on their job.
Some people on the other hand just give up. I’ve seen people with over 2,000 unread e-mails in their inbox. In a way this could be quite liberating – you’ve lost control, so why not just delete them all… a bit like being £5 million in debt, what does it matter if you blow £10,000 this weekend?
Even more interesting, ask someone what the solution to the overblown mail box problem is. If they say “archiving” that’s the wrong answer. That’s a solution to a symptom, not a cure for the disease. One of my favourite slides at the moment is entitled “What? How can I be over my mail quota again?” – and contains a screenshot, a real screenshot, of my inbox with over 40 mb of file attachments received in one day. How can this happen in IBM? There’s some interesting facts about these e-mails. The attention indicators (Notes 7 and 8 feature) tell me that none of these e-mails were sent to me only or even a list of less than five people including me. None of the e-mails came from the Lotus UK team. We have a very strong practise of sharing information via Quickr or Activities. But clearly there some people with bad habits. It’s not that we don’t have the technology… I actually think we have too much. As well as Quickr and Activities there are various other ways to share documents including some un-productised research projects. This goes to prove what we’ve always known, that collaboration is cultural – you can put the technology in place, but people have to realise the pain and then see the value. Either that or you stand behind them with a large piece of wood with a nail sticking out the end of it.
So, having solutions like Quickr (with it’s Connectors for Notes and now Outlook) and Activities can help to cut down the volume of file attachments. But what about the number of e-mails? Think about this… every e-mail you send has the potential to spawn several more over the next few days and maybe weeks. Reply-with-history seems to be a default (minus file attachments of course), so you get the same e-mail again (and again, and again) with a extra dollop of text each time.
This returns us very nicely to the subject of Sametime Advanced chat rooms. I’m not suggesting for one minute that chat rooms will replace e-mail, but I suggest that they can replace e-mails for selected business activities. Along with all of the other items that you gather, you can associate a chat room (or rooms) with a business activity and define that as the place to communicate. Everyone can see the transcript, no-one has to ask for the history (not even late joiners). No-one has to repeat anything as the transcript exists as one continuous persistent dialogue, even if you step out of the dialogue for several days or perhaps weeks. The chat can be real-time, or can be asynchronous as you can catch up on the discussion later. And through a rather neat capability which plugs into the Sametime client you can be alerted to activity going on inside the chat room so that you join in.
E-mail is here for the duration, but you need to be ready for the day it gets side-lined and overtaken by more effective methods of communication and collaboration. To quote an old marketing campaign, I use Lotus solutions and I AM ready for that day.