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Practical Internet Groupware by Jon Udell

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What’s Wrong with Email?

Email isn’t really broken, it’s just misunderstood and often forced to operate outside its domain of competence. It’s the original (and still most effective) push technology. If Bob wants Ellen to review july98.xls, it’s appropriate that he email her a copy, just as in the pre-electronic era he would have dropped a paper copy on her desk with a yellow sticky note requesting her attention.

Unfortunately things are never quite so simple. At the same time that Ellen needs to review the numbers, Richard wants to spruce up the spreadsheet’s appearance. So Bob cc’s july98.xls to Richard as well. Now when Ellen replies to Bob with a financial clarification, Richard gets an unnecessary and distracting email. Likewise when Richard replies to Bob, Ellen gets junk mail.

Things deteriorate from here. Bob and Ellen begin a dialogue that generates a series of back-and-forth messages, each containing an ever-more-confusing tail of quoted responses. Along the way they recruit George and Susan, by cc’ing them some version of the evolving discussion. George and Susan struggle to get up to speed. They don’t have the entire transcript, which is distributed between Bob’s mailbox and Ellen’s, so they have to read between the lines in order to join the discussion midstream. Meanwhile all these messages keep hitting Richard’s mailbox. As a member of the team, Richard should be at least peripherally aware of these goings on. But this chatter should be confined to a lower-priority communication channel.

Sally, whose request to Bob set all this in motion, hasn’t heard a thing, because Bob forgot to cc her on his original note to Richard and Ellen. And now, as fate would have it, Sally leaves the company. How will Peter, her successor, learn about the status—or even the existence—of Bob’s project? There’s plenty of documentation, but it’s scattered across a half-dozen mailboxes. All are inaccessible to Peter. None contains a complete transcript. Each holds one view of a group discussion, along with quoted bits of some other views. In theory you could join all these views to reconstruct the complete transcript; in practice nobody has the time, skill, or motivation to stitch the whole quilt together. It goes without saying that there’s no way to perform a full-text search across the set of documents related to the project.

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