This website covers topics on knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Conversation confusion via email

Michael Sampson is writing a series of articles as a follow-up to his discussion of "email vs collaboration technologies."  The first looks at issues associated with tracking an ongoing conversation in email.  Unresolved Issues with Email: Confusion in Conversation Flow, Jan 25 (with an addendum posted today).  Here's the setup:

John's charge is indeed a problem with the technology of email. Email was designed to replace sending messages on paper with electronically delivered messages sent at great speed. Post-delivery issues of handling were left up to the individual recipient; email was not designed to re-aggregate those messages into a single overall summary once they hit the recipient's email inbox. Each recipient is responsible for working through each of the messages, figuring out which ones convey valuable information, which ones merely re-iterate what other people have already said, and where the flow of the conversation is going. Date and time ordering of email in the inbox helps with this somewhat, but if 6 of 7 project team members respond quickly to messages about a new topic, and then a couple of days later the 7th person re-enters the conversation and works through each of the messages in sequential order, there's going to be confusion generated.

This is a familiar problem to almost anyone who works in teams; attempts to have a long conversation even with one person in email; or participates in email-based mailing lists.  At some point, you lose the boat. 

What are the costs of this?  Sampson lists frustration, misunderstandings, constant reevaluation of topic fit, fragmented and time-delayed conversations, and scattered messages.  The result is that "people have to work harder" to have a conversation and collaborate than they would if they were using tools (and practices) that work better with the idea of a conversation.

My favorite frustration happens when someone says something odd that creates loads and loads confusion before getting rectified.  Most famously this turns into flame wars in mailing lists.  But even more dangerous are the one that don't get corrected and remain on the record.  This has been the source of many adverse decisions in the courts. 

Beyond dumping e-mail altogether, how can people make the good use of the technology in the setting of a conversation?  (Many of these are good habits in general too.)

  • Don't surprise people with the conversation.  Those who don't have the context are going to ask lots of background questions, or make incorrect assumptions, or be overwhelmed.
  • Only hold conversations with the appropriate people.  Don't include people (your boss) in a conversation "for their information."  Give the FYI's a summary at the end instead.
  • Practice good writing skills.  Be succinct.  If the conversation truly requires a long response, place a summary in the first line, so people know what their getting into (or skipping). 
  • Read everything before replying.  If it's a vocal group, check for other responses after you've composed your response.
  • Develop a standard for stripping previous message text when replying (i.e. keep only the relevant text).  This isn't so much a size issue as a too-much-to-look-at issue.
  • If the topic splits, start additional discussions with new, descriptive subject lines.
  • If the discussion goes longer than a few days or if it is very sensitive, figure out another way to come to conclusion.  Gather everyone in a 15-minute meeting, teleconference, something.  Then wrap up the issue in a final email / summary for everyone.
  • If a document (paper, presentation, spreadsheet) is involved, please move it to a shared location and/or make one person responsible for incorporating the changes and suggestions of the group.  Shipping around multiple edits and versions of a document is a recipe for getting nothing done. 

I'm sure there are other techniques.  Feel free to suggest your own -- or point me to similar summaries of good email habits for group collaboration.

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