Need a collaboration tool? Try email | Opensource.com

Need a collaboration tool? Try email

Posted 05 Aug 2013 by 

Jeff Mackanic (Red Hat)
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Collaboration is one of the key principles of the open source way and a major topic here on opensource.com. One of our goals to highlight great collaboration stories, and when we discuss collaboration, the need for the perfect collaboration tool frequently comes up. One article, Avoid the tool trap when building communities, provides some great insights (hint: people create community, not tools).

Email is still undoubedly one of the most preferred tools out there for collaboration. In fact, collaboration on the the Linux kernel started with the famous email Linus Torvalds sent to a mailing list back in 1991.

Over the years, I have used many different collaboration tools both at work and outside of it. I have used multiple wikis, blogs, and social platforms. When I pause to think about it, I am amazed at the shear number of collaboration tools I have used. And of all these different tools, none has completely solved the collaboration problem. When I want to find a document, for example, I first have to think: "Which wiki is that document on?" What a collaboration mess.

Given all the effort we've put into coming up with new collaboration tools, I was shocked when I read in the Harvard Business Review an article titled, E-Mail: Not Dead, Evolving. As part of their survey, the authors ask: "What are the most effective channels for collaboration?" The top answers are:

  • 60% e-mail to individuals
  • 34% e-mail to lists
  • 23% e-mail to teams
  • 19% teleconference
  • 15% video/web conferencing
  • 6% business collaboration tools

Hooray for email! It is still the best collaboration tool. Nothing else is even close. This might be bad news for our good friend Paul Jones, who wrote about abandoning his email two years ago. Interestingly, this featured a poll asking our readers if they could live without email—and 77% responded "No."

After reading the HBR article, I thought about all the time and money organizations spend looking for the perfect collaboration tool. Consider all the cycles we could have saved if we would have chosen email as our preferred collaboration tool. Imagine how much better our email search/archiving/storage could be if we had spent on email the amount of energy that we have expended on new collaboration tools. I began to wonder:

  1. Is email actually a good collaboration tool, but we are always excited about a new shiny object?
  2. Or, is email actually a bad collaboration tool, but it is so entrenched that no other tool has been able to dislodge it over the past 20 years?

Here at opensource.com, email is our primary collaboration tool. We maintain an author email list, where we discuss ideas for new articles; a moderator email list, where we plan our editorial calendar; and a community mailing list for readers who want to be more involved with the site (consider joining it!). Over the years we we have adjusted our email list strategy, but it seems to be working pretty well overall.

One more fun fact from the Harvard Business Review article: email dissatisfaction was only 6%. Need to Collaborate? Start with an email.

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13 Comments

robinmuilwijk
Open Sourcerer

Reaffirming post, thanks for sharing the HBR post and writing about it here. I use e-mail a lot and would be at hand if without it.

Being an active contributor to several open source projects/communities, a lot of communication and collaboration goes through direct emails and lists.

With movements like 'world without email' (http://www.elsua.net/tag/a-world-without-email/) I became carefull e-mailing people. But this reaffirms my personal opinion e-mail is the right tool for my collaboration.

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Guna

When I want to find a document, for example, I first have to think: "Which wiki is that document on? - In this case you, at the least, only need to look into the relevant project. In case of email how can you go through years and years of emails? Having said that, there are many good modern collaboration tools where you can have forums, news, wikis, tasks (and plenty of other facilities through plugins). It is very easy to track down an activity quickly and easily which will also notify the relevant project member, on any activity, by email and thus satisfies old schoolers. The modern collaboration tools are very efficient in this aspect. Email is only being held up by bureaucrats who always feel uncomfortable to learn and adopt to new terms and technologies in my opinion :).

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robinmuilwijk
Open Sourcerer

I think the context is also important, and definition of the type of collaboration you are involved in. For me, being in an open source community, e-mail is my primary tool, but I also use a lot of other tools.

Other collaboration tools are indeed very efficient, for example Yammer, Redmine etc.

If it comes down to communication (context) though, I prefer e-mail. I think it is more sustainable. Especially if you look at Google who has discontinued several services/tools.

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Guna

If it comes down to communication (context) though, I prefer e-mail. - I completely agree (why should I go to redmine if I need to say 'Hello' to one of me colleagues? :)). However, 'collaboration' comes only in the project context. Am I wrong?

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robinmuilwijk
Open Sourcerer

As you replied to Joshua, we probably differ on what we see/use as collaboration tools. In many projects, working together and realizing a shared goal, they do this without tools such as Redmine or Jira. Tasks and status are for example shared through e-mail.

I have to say though, once it leans towards 'project', such tool provide benefits. In a project I'm active in, we recently changed to using Jira, next to e-mail. We have tasks running for longer times, and then tools like Jira can benefit the team.

p.s. thanks for this open discussion, also helps readers understand collaboration in different context.

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Guna

In many projects, working together and realizing a shared goal, they do this without tools such as Redmine or Jira - As, in my reply to Joshua, nothing is undoable. Then again email is not specific to a project. Even in this case, IF you need to refer something a year or two later you have to dig through piles of emails (otherwise you have to create your own filters and folder, which again is only within your machine/shared drive). Whereas if you have recorded the project activity in specialised tools, you don't have to do this. You can log on and dive straight into the project. Or when a completely new person wants something about the project (again in a years time) he/she does not have to go through the project members (it may be possible that, at that point, all the project members are gone and their emails might have been destroyed or buried deeply)

ps: I have started this discussion for getting myself cleared about things. Thanks for replying to me.

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holmja
Open Source Sensei

As someone with some interest in making sure (important & public) digital communications aren't completely ephemeral, I still prefer email listservs to twitter, forums without user accessible data export options, and the like. I can search, download, and do things with the archives from listservs, if I, for example, want to do historical research on a project (some of us actually need "years and years of emails"). I have a much harder time doing using some of the other communication/collaboration methods. I can still find emails I sent in 2005 to a particular project's listserv, but finding a twitter discussion about the same project from last year is a chore, if it is possible at all. Twitter's search bills itself as "See what's happening right now" and even the advanced search doesn't include an option to search for things from a specific time frame. Exporting your own data isn't the same thing as getting all the data and being able to search through everyone's comments on a topic, and the Library of Congress's twitter archiving effort is still just getting off the ground. Newer forms of communication and collaboration aren't always better.

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Guna

May be my understanding of collaboration tool is different from what you guys mean. Agreeing with you, I would not rely on Twitter for collaboration (Is it a collaboration tool at all?). I really mean tools like redmine (and similar - may be JIRA?).

I can search, download, and do things with the archives from listservs, if I, for example, want to do historical research on a project - Nothing is undoable (we can even manage things with pen and paper and still attain the result). The difference is how readily the information is available.

With a proper project collaboration one doesn't (or shouldn't?) need to search, download, and do things with the archives.

My humble opinion is things (if not already) get better only if they get used and efforts made to improve - not by resisting by hanging on to traditions :).

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holmja
Open Source Sensei

I'm actually letting one of my professional memberships lapse because the members only listserv has dried up in favor of twitter discussions. (The private listserv was one of the few member benefits that I used.) Previously, they used the listserv to collaborate on event planning and the future vision of the organization. The very act of communicating is collaborating, not everyone needs something like redmine.

Nothing is undoable (we can even manage things with pen and paper and still attain the result). The difference is how readily the information is available.
Correct, and there is no reason that newer tools, that improve in other areas, should make data less accessible (i.e. make things harder to access) than the tools from the "þe olden days" of the internet.

With a proper project collaboration one doesn't (or shouldn't?) need to search, download, and do things with the archives.
So no one should ever need to write a history of a project based on how things developed? How things happened is just as important and the end result, and modern tools need to make things as easy to do so as the tools that came before them.

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Guna

not everyone needs something like redmine. - individuals may have preferences. I have already agreed with that (why should I go to redmine if I need to say 'Hello' to one of me(y) colleagues?).

The very act of communicating is collaborating - vocabularies may have same meanings; I can't argue that communication and collaboration are of the same or different meaning. A one to one(a communication) is completely different from a team work (I call this a collabortion). Let myself and one other be the team members of a project (along with several other projects which we are not members together) and we had some communications, through emails, with regards to the project (even though I think that it is inefficient) and, say, in three months time another one joins the project; should we go back to our emails filter out comms with regards to the project and share all those with the third member? And worse that a fourth member joins the project in 6 months. How easy is it to add the third person as the member of the project from which point onwards he/she gets all those activities on the project (I hope you have used Redmine as you have mentioned it)?

there is no reason that newer tools, that improve in other areas, should make data less accessible, modern tools need to make things as easy to do so as the tools that came before them - Hadn't I differed with these, I wouldn't have started this discussion. In case of email how can you go through years and years of emails? is the statement where I expressed my prime point - easy data accessibility. A project collaboration not only collaborates members but also collaborates resources of the project. All you need to do is to log on to the collaboration, say Redmine, and get into the project of interest - everything is readily available - user discussions (through forums), articles (through wiki), files and documents, tasks and it goes on. Does this mean less accible? :) Come on.

So no one should ever need to write a history of a project based on how things developed? - You don't need to. With a proper collaboration tool, things are recorded as they happened. All you need to do is to create a report; that is it. If you don't need the history you don't have to. Simple.

After all, I understand, at least for now (;)), we can't underestimate the value of the role of emails in business. But, from your words, it can only be used as a communication tool (including for notifications from collaboration tools :)); not a collaboration tool (please don't jump on me for this :)).

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Anon

I think as a collaboration tool, NNTP will fare far better than email.

NNTP needs to be developed with new features and stabilized which will be a great move.

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craigharffey
Open Source Evangelist

For many years I was looking for an "email killer". Whilst for internal use we have chat services, I still find that for anything important, it's email I turn too as it will be seen (eventually) by anyone I send it too.

As my business scales I hope we will make more use of wiki (currently only for documentation) and chat but this is a cultural change and our industry (and staff) are historiucally corporate, so email is king (and attachments, but that is a moan for another day)

Email is a great tool if used with thought / etiquette...its negatives are typically usage problems

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Sergio

I really like Bitrix24 approach to collaboration, it doesn't entirely exclude e-mails, but it does reduce e-mail load quite a bit.

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Jeff Mackanic has been at Red Hat for more than nine years and is currently responsible for the creative services team at Red Hat. After several stints with varying levels of success at many e-commerce companies, Jeff became one of the original employees at Akopia, which delivered ecommerce solutions based on the Interchange platform. After Red Hat acquired Akopia, Jeff spent several years in Red Hat Consulting. Jeff has also worked in IT and marketing during his tenure at Red Hat.

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