Email is NOT a Document Management System Part II: Fallacy 1 - Email for Collaboration

Posted by Romeo Elias on Mon, Nov 13, 2006 @ 01:31 PM

On behalf of Jaime Sipila

Fallacy 1 – email is great for document management because it is a collaborative tool

Yes, email allows for quick and easy communication. In fact it has fundamentally changed the way we do business. However, the critical word in this particular fallacy is “collaborative”. If you ask 20 people what collaboration means to them in reference to software, you’ll get 20 different responses. You’ll hear things like “real time”, “centralized knowledge”, and even “white boards”. Is email a collaborative tool? Sure it is – in the sense that you are able to share pieces of information with many others. It is neither centralized nor real time however.

Centralized and real time imply that users can actively seek out the most current piece of information at any time. From the receiver’s perspective – the user that wants to see the updated information – email is very much a passive tool in the sense that she has to wait for another user to actively send the most current information. There is no central location for her to search across all email accounts. Although the email accounts may reside on one central server, access to each account is available only to an account owner. Furthermore, the user that sends the information (assuming she is sending the correct file) must remember to include every user’s address in the email. Forget a user’s name and that user is out of what could be a critical communication loop.

Adding frustration to an already annoying situation, it is likely that the recipient already had the file in his email in the first place. He may not have searched for it properly. So rather than simply pulling it up on demand, he ends up either recreating the work, or sending out requests to get copies of it – now spreading the inefficiencies to others with multiplicative effects. And if the sender accidentally sends out the wrong version in haste, watch out!! Once again, there are elements of collaboration, but very ineffective collaboration at best. Team members end up with duplicated work, disrupted work flow, and quite often confusion.

One of the most prevalent issues here is a lack of standardized structure. Even if someone sends the email to all who need it, most recipients do not file/sort the information at all. So rather than searching for it when needed, team members waste time writing emails asking for it to be resent. Or, they will spend time searching for, or possibly recreating the information and then sending it out again. During the course of a program (project) this can and will happen multiple times by the various recipients and senders on the very same piece of information!!! This is collaboration all right, but of the most inefficient kind.

Next week: Fallacy 2 - email is great for storing documents because I can easily search for them