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Make conversations, not e-mail

I just read with interest the following article about an IT firm that is eliminating all internal email correspondence:

Europe's largest IT firm to scrap internal e-mail
I came to pretty much the exact same conclusion a couple of years ago (email is a horrible communication mechanism), but with a drastically different solution.

Three years ago at our firm (Trumpet, Inc.), we eliminated about 95% of our internal email communication, replacing it with an internal forum system. This allows our team to engage in discussion about various topics, but never with the nightmare of back and forth email exchanges where no-one can ever figure out who said what, when. With the forum in place, everyone can see the current state of the discussion, review the past comment thread, etc... We do receive email notifications when a given discussion has been updated (but only *one* notification until we connect to the forum to read up on the topic).

The key realization for us was that email is really good at sending a single message - it's entire goal is to send a piece of information from one person to another, one time. We then spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to tie a thread through all the emails to create a 'conversation' - but this is always artificial, as it works against e-mail's core design (sending a message from point A to point B). Gmail does a pretty good job with this - but it still breaks down (ever forget to hit Reply All?).

So what are we, as users, really interested in? We aren't interested in sending individual messages. We are interested in engaging others in conversation. And while email is a very useful *notification* tool (as is text messaging and instant messaging), it is absolutely horrible for conversation. In fact, I would say that it is anathema to effective conversation. A far better model would be to establish a conversation that intereted parties can partake in.

So what are some tools to help move a firm from email to conversations?

1. Forums - the bulk of the conversations in our firm now take place in a forum based system that we are all subscribed to. Each discussion becomes a forum topic, and each exchange in the conversation is a post in the topic. Pros: we definitely engage in a group conversation; the history of the discussion is preserved for all time in a fully searchable system; it's very easy to go back and determine the reasons that a particular decission was made. Cons: Discussion of large, complex problems or projects is still hard (if a discussion starts having posts with 7 sub-items mapped out, we know we are getting into trouble).

2. Instant messaging - I'm a big believer in IM, as long as it is used judiciously, for time sensitive items (for example, if we start a time sensitive discussion in the forums, we might notify a key player via IM that they should look at it ASAP). I also suggest having a very clear policy on how to respond to an IM request if the recipient feels the topic should be moved to the forums (sometimes in the heat of working on something, it's easy to forget that everyone elses priorities aren't necessarily the same as yours). IM is also very effective for a quick exchange between two people that doesn't have to be archived for posterity. Final comment on IM: I *far* prefer IM to casually sticking my head into someone's office. IM allows the recipient to come to a reasonable stopping point before responding. This is much harder to do if there is physical presence involved.

3. Social media - I'm still not convinced that social is appropriate for internal business communication. Social networking is more about connections and dipping our mind into a shared social conscious. This is fantastic for personal interaction, but in most business transactions, it's not ok for someone to just dip into a conversation from time to time. So for now, I'm holding to my current position that there *may* be a place for Social in the business communication space, but only for non-critical communications (akin to employee newsletters, firmwide announcements that really aren't hyper critical or time sensitive, that sort of thing). I'm certain that 3 years from now I'll be laughing at this, but so far, I haven't seen it.

As a side note, we recently overhauled our outward facing support system - eliminating the use of emails as a communication mechanism, replacing them with a system that creates discussions related to each support request. Interested parties are invited into the conversation as needed, and everyone can see the history of the conversation. Email is still used, but only as a notification mechanism for users who wish (another notification method available to us in our new support system is RSS feeds, which I use to keep casual tabs on what everyone is involved with).

I see this trend away from email growing - but I don't think the way to get there is by just tossing out email - I think that having an awareness of what we are really trying to achieve (conversation) will help us all in evaluating the best set of tools for our specific organizations.

As an aside, I'd love to see a CRM built from the ground up around this concept of conversation - I think it would be a very compelling solution. If only I had a another 80 hours a week to devote to creating such a beast!

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Author

Jo Day

Jo Day

Jo loves learning about interesting problems and how people are solving them. Jo is well known for connecting people and ideas and is a great catalyst (moo!) to change. Where some people see the world through rose colored glasses, Jo sees the world through processes. When Jo isn't hanging out with her family, Jo's favorite hobbies are being anywhere outdoors and coming up with new business ideas – just for fun!

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