The email argument revisited

I keep returning to this topic (see previous post, for example). This time, my post has been prompted by three things: a Union Square press release, a conversation with Sarcophagus’s Jeremy Sainter, and a blog posting by Lars Plougmann linking to the thoughts of a Harvard professor.

Taking these in reverse order, Lars writes about the flipside of email and collaboration, drawing on a suggestion that asks: what would enterprise adoption look like if collaborative platforms had been invented before email? Harvard professor Andrew McAfee poses the question in his blog.

He distinguishes between private communication channels such as email, IM and texting (where “information … isn’t widely visible, consultable, or searchable” and often “no record exists of who sent what to whom”) and collaboration platforms (where contributions are visible and persistent). If current corporate collaboration and communication technologies were exclusively platforms (he mentions blogs and wikis, but let’s add extranets into this category too), McAfee argues, what would happen if a crop of new channel technologies – email, instant messaging, text messaging – became available? He suggests two main outcomes:

“First, users would adopt the new channel technologies for private communications, but not for much more than that. They’d quickly see that it’s less efficient to use channels, and less helpful to their colleagues….

“Second, many constituencies would hate the new technologies, and strenuously advocate that they be kept out.  In a company accustomed to platforms, introducing channels would be perceived as asking for trouble.  They’d be seen as tools that would let sensitive information leave the company and jump over Chinese walls, let sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior flourish below the radar, and let people waste as much time as they wanted to chatting with each other about irrelevant stuff.  What’s even worse, compliance officers and other managers would feel largely powerless to stop this bad behavior, because channel traffic is so hard to monitor.  They couldn’t read all employee emails, and sampling would be unlikely to catch all the problems quickly enough to head them off.”

This flipside test exposes some of the contradictions in using email, as I have argued in the past (see The email argument). At BIW, we have tried to discourage use of conventional email by project teams during delivery of construction projects, but individuals have become so accustomed to using desktop-based email as their primary communication tool that it is sometimes difficult to convince them to use any alternatives, such as the ‘team mail’ functions built into the on-demand BIW solution.

And it’s not just BIW. Right across the AEC industry, this insistance on using email has prompted IT businesses to deliver email management solutions either as part of wider solutions or as bolt-on extras. Union Square’s Workspace, for example, has apparently just been adopted by Stuarts Industrial Flooring because it:

“… has been designed to help construction firms improve management of email and prevent valuable business information disappearing. The software provides companies with a simple method of filing, archiving and retrieving all emails through a central software portal that can be accessed by any employee within the organisation.”

And Sarcophagus has been marketing its MsgSave software for around five years, and has seen interest grow – particularly in the US following the introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

But this may change and such email accommodations might become unnecessary. As mentioned yesterday (under ‘Document Collaboration’ in my On-demand/SaaS “set to take off in 2007” post), if the construction industry follows wider IT trends “challenging the domination of desktop applications” then we might yet see working environments where collaboration ‘platforms’ become the norm and ‘channels’ are rejected for being insecure, difficult to manage, time-wasting and unauditable. However, this would still require a major change in individual attitudes and corporate cultures to take place (as I’ve said numerous times before, successful use of collaboration technologies is 80% about people and processes, only 20% technology).

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  1. […] and Union Square makes a virtue of the email management capabilities in its Workspace intranet platform (see post). […]

  2. […] Square argues, with some justification (I have discussed this in the past too – see here for example), that standard business tools such as Microsoft Outlook do not always serve the best […]

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