Transform your email server into a collaboration platform

Many attempts at business collaboration fail because they establish environments separate from email. Here's how one can become an extension of the other

email collaboration
Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann

I once ran a small Web development team at Byte magazine that became my laboratory for an experiment in group communication; that, in turn, became my 1999 book "Practical Internet Groupware." At the core of that book was a notion that for teams -- and for whole companies -- it would be useful to flip the default privacy setting on electronic communication in the workplace.

Email was fairly new then, but it had already established a culture in which messages were expected to address individuals, not teams or the whole company. Restricting the scope of messages seemed to make sense. The damage that Reply All could do was already apparent. How could everybody talk to everybody at the same time?

The unintended consequence was fierce. Most knowledge was, and to this day is, trapped in inboxes inaccessible to most people in the company. Two requirements justify this fragmentation of group awareness, we say: We must protect people from information overload, and we must preserve confidentiality.

At Byte, I met those requirements differently. To protect people from information overload, I created forums for teams and one for the whole company. These were newsgroups running on a private NNTP server, Netscape's Collabra, that enhanced the basic netnews server with two key features: group-level permissions and search.

Collabra integrated beautifully with Netscape's Communicator client, which doubled as an email program and a newsreader. Blurring the boundary between the two meant that teams could communicate by default in a shared team space, which my team did. You could address individuals when confidentiality required or to avoid cluttering the shared team space with nonessential chatter, but for the most part, we operated in shared space.

There are three huge benefits to this approach.

  1. You can point a new hire at the shared space and say, "Spend a day reading this, you'll know who we are, what we do, and where the bodies are buried."
  2. You promote ambient awareness that augments the watercooler effect for colocated teams, or creates it in the case of distributed teams.
  3. You can be confident that search will find items that would otherwise be trapped in people's heads and inboxes.

It worked well for us, and I've never wanted to do things any differently. My decision to join Microsoft in 2006 was motivated in part by its acquisition of Groove and installation of Ray Ozzie as chief software architect. Groove was all about communicating in shared spaces. I hoped that ethos would take root at Microsoft. But the culture of private email communication was far too strong.

In a few years, Groove was a shadow of what it had been and Ray Ozzie was gone. At an offsite the year before he left I asked him what it was like to revert to a culture of communication silos. "I've thought about mandating that we make all the email servers searchable," he said, only half-kidding.

Times change. There are new winds blowing at Microsoft. The last team I worked with had adopted Slack. Despite the New York Times' breathless proclamation that Slack may finally sink email, I was reminded this week that email isn't the problem. Any method of electronic communication can be used well or poorly. And I'm thrilled to have joined a company that's decided to use email well.

The company is Hypothesis, we're a small nonprofit startup building open Web annotation software. On my first day last week, the first thing I read was an onboarding document written by our engineering manager, Nick Stenning. He had highlighted one section as most critical. Its title is "Email Transparency," and it's a reformulation of a manifesto that describes how the payment service Stripe uses email. Here's how Stripe summarizes the idea:

Initially, the motivation for having all email be internally public and searchable was simply to make us more efficient. If everyone automatically knew what was happening, we needed fewer meetings, and our coordination was more fluid and more painless if we could all keep up with the stream.
As we've grown, the experiment has become about both efficiency and philosophy. We don’t just want Stripe to be a successful product and company. We also want to try to optimize the experience of working here. As as we've grown, we've come to realize that open email can help.

Like Stripe, at Hypothesis we use a combination of Gmail and Google Groups. And we're adopting a clever idea of Stripe's that goes one step beyond what I did at Byte years ago.

Every shared space (my term for email list, or forum) has two aspects: For the design team, for example, there's one called "design" and another called "design-archive." Anything of immediate importance to the whole team goes to design. But the crucial innovation is that anything team members would normally say to one another off-list, because it doesn't merit the attention of the group, is cc'd to design-archive. Nobody is expected to read design-archive and much of it may never be needed, but it costs nothing to capture this discourse, expose it to search, and ensure that the group mind is as fully interconnected as it can possibly be.

Although I literally wrote the book on this subject, it took me a little while to warm up to Stenning's proposal. Over the years I'd pitched the same idea to deaf ears so many times that I lost hope. But now I'm fired up again. It's wonderful to be part of a team that values open communication and wants to make it our default mode.

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