A long time ago (though not in a galaxy far, far away), I worked as a research analyst for a venerable global management consultancy (the original “The Firm”). It was my first job out of college and public electronic mail hadn’t been invented yet.
If you needed to deliver textual information over a long distance, that meant fax (thermal paper only) or Telex (raise your hand if you remember what that was). Think of those ancient ways of communicating as types of electronic messaging, or at least pre-cursors to email.
They were much slower than email and certainly didn’t have email’s flexibility. The output was paper, so there was no push-button way to reply. You couldn’t attach something else to the message and forward it easily to another. The information couldn’t be searched. The list of limitations goes on forever.
Think about the implications of that. A text “conversation” had to be completely serial; linear. Creating context for the conversation meant either extra text to set the stage or spelunking through a manila file folder of old related faxes. Hardly seemed collaborative, and worse, it was often confusing.
One day those many years ago, a fax from the firm’s Dusseldorf office was placed in my (wooden) inbox. It was written by a German in English and asked for everything the New York office had on “fire control systems.” That was it, period. I had no idea what to send them. Were they interested in technology to put out fires or weapon systems to start them? There was no context. What followed was a time-consuming series of faxes back and forth to Germany.
Now shift gears to the present day. Email has replaced fax (and certainly Telex) for text communications. It’s infinitely faster and makes it easy to reply and forward information.
But, what about the context problem? If you received that same request about fire control systems via email, would you know any better what the originator wanted? Much of the back and forth communications would look just like the old days. The only good news here is that you could resolve the context question more quickly: reply, reply. Email blasts back and forth to lots of people inside your company are often viewed by users as Spamalot. Not good.
The application of collaborative technology has an impact on several aspects of this scenario. It shortcuts the issue of gathering, consolidating and disseminating information about those fire control systems.
However, the transforming benefit comes from putting all the communication into context. If the Dusseldorf request had been placed into a well designed discussion forum (that perhaps notified me via email or IM), I would have known immediately what they wanted. How? The mechanisms that come to mind – and there are no doubt others – are taxonomy, metadata and content.
Taxonomy: If the request was put into an area related to public safety, I’d have known that this kind of fire control system was designed to extinguish fires. If the request came under a military heading, the purpose would clearly have been less benign.
Metadata: Key words, tags, categorizations within the request would have given me the same insight regardless of where the request sat in the taxonomy.
Content: Before the Dusseldorf office ever needed to get more data, there was probably some discussion within the German consulting team on the subject of fire control. If the request had been part of that discussion, that, too, would have given me all the context I needed to give them an informed, on-target response.
A valuable by-product of asking the question in context is that the answer retains the proper context.
However you put communications into that useful framework, the effect is huge. Context ties communications to the business issue. To me, the fewer pieces of string you need to tie things to your objective, the greater the business impact.
People cling to messaging as a platform for collaboration. It’s comfort food and it still doesn’t work. In the context (there’s that word again) of collaboration, email and IM have to be relegated to their proper place as good ways to notify people about something that needs their involvement. The challenge is to convey the value to a user community in a way that’s visceral enough for them to recognize and internalize the benefits of doing things differently.
That takes planning, strategy, content management, change management, understanding of processes and people relationships and lots of other things that don’t have anything to do with the technology. But, that’s another topic.
—-posted by Tom Witkin