Is email useful or not? This topic has gotten some energy lately from Luis Suarez and Andrew McAfee (and others). As many of my readers know, I pay attention to this general topic as well. I think the gist of the discussion is, "If e-mail is a bad collaboration environment, what can be a better environment?" Or is everything we are discussing merely elements of human interaction, mediated by technology - in which case the collaboration discussion changes a bit.
On one side, we have people like Luis Suarez promoting an admittedly radical approach of eliminating work email altogether. His suggestion (hope?) is to replace with tools better suited to the type of collaboration, whether wikis, forums, social networks, etc. On the other side, there are the realists, voiced by Andrew McAfee, who says (paraphrasing) "How can we expect busy professionals to invest their time in more environments for collaboration?"
I particularly liked Andrew's hypothesis about collaboration technologies:
McAfee’s hypothesis: Within organizations, collaboration technologies are dictated by the most powerful person involved in the collaboration.
If these people use something other than e-mail, so will everyone else. If they don't, then all the experiments will eventually die off if the leaders ever need to be involved in the collaboration - they will choose their default platform (typically e-mail). This makes a lot of sense to me. Why else would every project along these lines include "management buy-in" as a key element for success. And even closer, many of the social software discussions have described people who "get it" only once they actually try using the technology.
I have attempted to fight this battle myself, encouraging and setting the example of using SharePoint to share files. But the setup was far too clumsy and nearly everyone at the company laughed when you would say "it's in SharePoint." Like that was going to do them any good. Please email me a copy.
A thought on my part: Everyone gets dragged at least into e-mail. McAfee uses the phrase that email, while not perfect, is usually considered "good enough" for most forms of collaboration. What if there were a better center of gravity to begin with? What if the leader decided that "good enough" was no longer acceptable?
Collaboration (working together) really can't be done in an asynchronous environment like email. There has to be a shared space around which we work, whether that is the phone or a meeting room or a "collaboration space" of shared documents / conversations. However, many of the technologies covered under the Web 2.0 / Enterprise 2.0 umbrella are about different modes of interaction. I wonder if the discussion should be focused on interactions instead of collaboration.
Interestingly, right after Luis' post in my reader was an from Amy Gahran on why she really wants Google Wave. Google Wave: I want it because I hate e-mail for doing things like "coordination (like setting meetings) or collaboration (like working together on projects) or tasks (like answering people’s questions) or ongoing conversations (like discussion groups)."