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Where content meets technology

May 20, 2006

Email and Content Management

I am not in the habit of identifying laws of nature or industry, but if I was, Gottlieb's Law would be "A company's success in content management is inversely proportional to the amount of information that is exchanged over email." Email probably has an 80% share of the content management market and that is a huge opportunity for growth of real content management processes and technologies and great opportunity for improvement for companies in managing their content. In fact, the next document management project I do, I want to baseline the number of email attachments before the project starts and not declare success until that number drops dramatically.

If you know me personally, you know that I often rail against email as a collaboration tool. A colleague of mine recently pointed out this blog post just to get my dander up. The desired results were achieved and I was not even soothed by the counter argument blog from the same source. I understand why email is such a tempting tool. That post outlines the reasons nicely: it is easy, universal, accessible, personalizable, reliable, and people just live in their email clients. Even I have to admit, the more you manage, the more you live in your email client. That is why most executives don't even need a computer anymore - just a blackberry to thumb a yes or no wirelessly. I could throw in a stick-it-to-the-man barb in here about adding value but I won't. What I will say is that if you compose the most brilliant text in the world into an email, it will have less impact than if you published it in some more persistent medium such as a blog, wiki, or forum.

The key issue that I have against email is that it compounds the problem of exploding volumes of unmanaged content by creating unnecessary duplicates. If you email a document to 2 people, you now have 3 copies to manage and merge and diff. No one knows which one is the master copy. No one knows which one is the newest copy regardless if someone stupidly added "new" to the file name. Plus, everyone is personally responsible for their piece of the archive. That is too much responsibility. If I accidentally delete the best version (it may or not be the latest version) of a document, there is no way to get it back.

There are lots of other issues I have with email. Many of them stem from a so-called benefit of email that it is a central place and it is in your face. Most people get too much email and are really bad at managing it. Because I monitor lots of open source mailing lists, I consider myself in that group. I constantly miss emails that sift below the scroll. I know that others have the same problem because whenever one of the mailing lists I subscribe to starts to get lively with good (or bad) dialog, there is always someone who complains about volume. What kind of collaboration is that? "Could you all please shut up? I have personal information management problem."

Never to be one to rant without a solution, here are some tips to solve the information management problem. I refuse to believe that the solution lies in building a better email client or integrating into email (other than sending an email notification of some event).

  • See email for what it is: it's a messaging system. Use email to notify someone of something. If your message contains information that you want that group of people to continually refer to, put it somewhere that you all have access to.

  • Publish information over RSS rather than email. I know that the marketing types still love their email newsletters and I know that some people still love getting them. It just feels incongruous to me to get these broadcast publications in the same place I want to get my business correspondence. I don't subscribe to any of them anymore. I am a bloglines junky instead. I also wish that there were two postal services, one to carry birthday cards and bills, and another to catalogs and credit card offers. OK. I know that I am asking for too much here. You can ignore that one. But, if anyone is listening, please stop sending me credit card offers.

  • Allow the user to dictate how they are notified of content (email, digest email, RSS), not how they manage or receive content. Let the user subscribe to be notified when something changes in the repository (See CPS for a good model) but don't allow them to get attachments and take assets to manage "off the grid." Once you do, that document will take on a life of its own outside the system and become a threat to the system's relevance. The system should allow a user to send a link to someone rather than an attachment.

  • This begs another question: offline access. I would suggest looking into a synchronization technology like Microsoft Windows Briefcase. Even as someone who travels a lot, I have grown to depend on the ubiquity of the network.

  • If your team crosses organizational or company boundaries and you communicate enough, consider putting up some sort of shared space to work in rather than stay in the lowest common denominator (email).

  • Experiment with tools that can take some of the burden off of email traffic. Open source is really nice in this area because you can try different things and see what people feel comfortable using. If it looks more complicated or difficult than email, people will use email.

  • Don't be afraid of introducing a new tool. Anything is an improvement over email or nothing. If you are successful in getting people off of the old standby, you can leverage that success in migrating to a more centralized system. If you are good, you will understand what lead to success and apply those lessons to the configuration of the new system.

  • You probably already have tools kicking around your infrastructure. Use them. If they don't work, give some serious thought as to why.

  • Think content first, not documents. If you are publishing something, don't create a document when you don't have to. Too many people default to opening up a word processor or presentation authoring system the moment they have something to say. For example, if you have a collaboration space and you want to put up a phone list of the team, don't write it in a Word document. Create some kind of page instead. Why would you ask someone to download a document and open up an editor just to get a phone number? People will just save local copies and work from that. Then you have to deal with telling everyone that an updated version is available. If your collaborative workspace does not have pages, you have the wrong tool. My rule of thumb is that I only create a document when the content has to exist outside of the system. For example, if I write a statement of work or a white paper, it needs to be in a document.

  • Think "page" or "post". A page is something that is maintained, a post is a snapshot in time. This blog entry is a post. If tomorrow I change my mind and I decide that I love email, I will write another blog post. My profile on this blog is a page. If something about me changes, I will update it. Use forum and blog tools for posts and wikis and WCM tools for pages. Of course, many WCM tools have content types for blogs and news releases and that is OK too.

  • Make it easy for a person to join and leave the conversation. Forums are good in this way.

People were right when they called email the killer app. It is everywhere. It is extremely useful doing what it is good at: sending messages. It is also a victim of its own success and it's overuse, in my opinion, is starting to threaten
its usefulness. I would be very interested in hearing others ideas on this. Just don't email them to me ;).