I while back I contributed a post to the messiness of email collaboration meme, Michael Sampson distilled the meme into 11 issues. I further responded with a more focused post on using email for document collaboration.
Anyway Michael has now taken us back to explore more indepth on the issue of email conversation flow.
By this he means:
“…that whilst modern email clients offer the ability to show related messages in a thread, that’s actually not sufficient to give a proper and natural ordering of email messages when multiple people are conversing on an issue over a multi-day or multi-week timeframe. Messages will be sent and received out of order. Some team members will respond to earlier messages in the thread, not the latest one. They’re not trying to be malicious (in most cases) … they’re trying to contribute … but since their contributions are handled via email and not a more appropriate tool, they contribute confusion in addition to whatever else they say.”
…added to this some people will also send a new email instead of replying, this adds more mess (this is OK if it is a new but related topic), and some people might get left out of the conversation.
Gmail helps to collate all the reply messages together, but it doesn’t thread the conversation in a linear discussion like a forum.
Michael lists some points of confusion:
- misunderstandings (have people in the discussion received all the emails, do they have a full picture)
- constant re-evaluation of topic fit (late sent messages cause you to think where do they fit in the prior discussion)
- fragmented and time-delayed conversation (since you are pushed email you have no choice in receiving messages to an expired conversation)
- scattered messages (your sent messages are not collated with your received messages, and your received messages are not collated in conversations…this is where Gmail shines)
Michael agrees a discussion forum is different as it enables you to post replies in the precise place in the linear thread.
He then says email is like anything else where it stores conversation fragments, just like a face to face meeting. In a meeting you don’t keep fragmented notes, it is general summarized into a linear format as minutes.
Sure an email conversation can be summarized, but it is much harder to compile it in a linear thread than a real-time discussion…I’d moreso compare IM to face to face meetings.
Michael suggests an awesome feature where you can select various emails and right-click summarize it into a post-it note. In the future when you open one of these emails the post-it note opens instead (obviously you can still open the email if so desired)…and you can also choose to share your post-it.
NOTE: All that OUtlook has is posting a reply to yourself (Actions>Post Reply to Folder), but this is more a contextual noting feature.
But still if the email conversation is going for a few weeks it is still hard to look back at the linear thread as the conversation is still happening, it just isn’t a forum.
- the conversation is scattered
- people may miss out on bits of the conversation
- new people find it hard to catch up with the current conversation
- a legacy of the raw conversation isn’t published
- you may not want to be part of the conversation but you are pushed emails, ie. hard to opt out
SOLUTION - Email/Forum hybrid
My solution is based on the way some discussion forums operate, but I’m suggesting a dedicated product that enterprises can use as an add-on module to augment email conversations.
The idea is for people to still use email for discussion, but the discussion is being duplicated and neatly threaded as it happens at a forum…best of both worlds.
First of all people need to register to get email notifications from new topic/replies from the forum, and you can opt out of either at any stage.
In the To: field is the email address of the forum, you post a topic to this address from your email, this appears as a new topic for discussion in the forum.
The forum sends registered people an email with the content of the new topic, people can then reply to this address, which appears as a reply message to this topic in the forum, which the forum then emails its content to registered people.
Then people can reply back to this reply, or find the email of the original reply and reply to that by email.
NOTE: you don’t have to use email, you can post topics/replies directly into the forum.
In the end you don’t have to go to the forum to discuss or follow the discussion, but if you do go to the forum you will see a threaded tree like discussion.
Likewise you can trawl through the email discussion in your email client but you will find it is much easier to go to the forum to follow the linear thread.
I don’t think all emails or group emails should be posted to a forum, only those intended for a discussion.
A forum is not the only choice, anything that has a public way of publishing posts and replies in a date-based linear fashion, eg. a blog. Only thing is blog comments don’t have a contextual reply tree, that is replies to a reply.
The good thing about a blog is you can organise posts (would be forum topics) into categories.
At this stage like the minutes in a face to face meeting, the topic discussion in the forum can be distilled into a wiki, report or even a blog post.
- conversation is no longer scattered
- people don’t miss out on parts of the conversation as all posts are sent to a centralised address, it is more of a pull system…again you can CC: whoever you want to send a normal email if you feel they are not registered with the forum
- new people can catch up quite easily on the public linear discussion
- the conversation is published
- you can opt out of a topic or replies at any time, you are in charge of receiving emails
And all this with still using email, so nothing is different, if anything you have a bonus feature without doing anything new.
The only issue with the forum solution is what happens if someone you want to be part of the discussion is not registered, since it is a pull method this is something to be weary of, you need to make sure all intended people are hearing you.
I suppose you could look up the forum participant list to make sure your intended receivers are all listed, but sometimes you may post a topic to a business unit and not even know all the people, some might be new, some might be in a different office, location, etc…
Perhaps an Outlook group could be subscribed to the forum, as long as members of that group can opt out of any topics/replies, etc…
This is where 9cays comes in, it is similar to the forum idea, but at a more granular level, as every conversation has its own email address.
See help for how it works…
1. Send an email as usual to as many people as you like, but also send it to 9cays.
2. In turn 9cays creates a unique email address for this conversation, then 9cays will forward on your email to the particpants from this unique email address for this conversation.
3. If the participants choose to accept the invite they will see this email and can then simply reply to the unique 9cays address for this conversation.
4. To leave a conversation just click the leave link which appear in each email
5. Invite new users to the conversation at any time, just include their email address in a reply (either in the To: or Cc: field).
6. New users or particpants can catch up on the conversation so far by viewing the linear thread in the public webpage
So like the forum solution you are sent the content of other peoples replies in your email, and you send your own reply via your own email.
A conversation also has an RSS feed so you can re-syndicate it elsewhere, it will store attachments and images will apeear in posts.
Here is an example.
This very much looks like a blog, and you can basically use it as a blog, but it will be a blog that only has one post, but that’s OK for simple blogs like picture of the day.
This blog will be private to the extent that only invited people are allowed to comment.
So this is perhaps even better than the forum solution, only difference with a forum is that it aggregates all topics in one view, not sure if 9cays displays a gateway page that aggregates all discussions.
The only downside is that replies to a reply are not in a contextual tree like a forum, it is more flat level replies like a blog.
One of the most important aspects of the forum add-on and 9cays solution is that people can use Outlook or their preferred email client as usual, it’s just business as usual with a little added spice.
Grouptivity is the same but isn’t as effective a solution as 9cays, the main reason is that when you are sent a message you have to click on a link and reply in a web form. The conversation is visible on a public webpage as a discussion board, but it doesn’t have the option of having the discussion content stored in both your email and a webpage, as you can’t post replies as a new mail, you have to do it from a web form.
You have the option to reply to the sender or reply to all, and it also offers RSS feeds.
Grouptivity is not just about discussion it includes templates such as surveys, polls, reminders, feedback form so it is not specifically about a discussion thread.
The website doesn’t actually say, but I assume people are notified of replies by email, only as mentioned, you have to reply in the web form. WebWorkerDaily has more on Grouptivity.
Anyway I see Grouptivity on almost equal stance as a forum add-on and 9cays.
What I like about these solutions is that you now have a linear thread of an email conversation, and you still get to use your usual email client.
Now microsoft ought to release some sort of threading feature like 9cays, don’t you think? It’s such a common frustration, and people are reluctant about solutions that involve shifting to new technologies and processes.
Does anyone have any other suggestions or know of similar products?
How to the web 2.0 group/task management services deal with this sort of issue?
[ADDED 31/01/07: One of the comments reminded of QuickTopics, how could I miss this one out; Your email thread is kept in one central place, Anyone can stop getting email, Participants don’t have to change the way they work…more:
“When you start a QuickThread, all the messages in your email thread get posted to a new QuickTopic message board, and all the people participating in the email conversation are automatically subscribed and notified. From that point on people can continue to reply to this email as usual, and it’ll be emailed to the group as usual, but it will also be added to the QuickTopic web forum.”
Basically the initiator sends an email or multiple emails to QuickTopic (these could already be the start of an email discussion) , it creates a forum post and scans the To: and Cc: field to create the subscribers for this forum post, and you are off.
This is very similar to 9cays in that every discussion topic can have its own subscriber group, as opposed to a forum that has an overall subscriber group. Like both of these options, it also lets you post and receive content in your usual email client, you can opt out, and people can be invited half way through a discussion, and most importantly there is a public thread to see the discussion.
See the FAQ.
QuickTopics can even be added to your website.]
[ADDED 19/07/07: CircleUp]