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July 18, 2003 » 8:16 am

E-mail as a Synchronous Collaboration Tool

I just got back from dinner with a friend in Berkeley. (Wow! Details about my life! Not just more boring thoughts about collaboration! Whoops, spoke to soon. Here it comes.) I spent most of the car ride back thinking about Leaping the Abyss and the inherent advantages that synchronous collaboration has over asynchronous collaboration.    (2T)

I then started thinking about my own experience with asynchronous collaboration, and also my observations of various open source communities. I realized something important: E-mail is technically an asynchronous collaborative tool (different time, different place), but it can also be used synchronously (same time, even same place). Some of my best experiences working with people over e-mail have occurred when we were all online at the same time, and we were responding almost in real-time to messages. One of us would receive an e-mail, do some work in response, and send out another e-mail. Momentum would build, and a chain reaction ensued.    (2U)

Many open source communities work in similar fashion. In fact, it’s common among open source developers to follow both e-mail and IRC as they code.    (2V)

Earlier today, I polled the Collaboration Collaboratory about e-mail usage. Dorai Thodla said something interesting in response:    (2W)

Mostly I read the posts in the evenings or over weekends. Sometimes I respond but most of the time I don’t since I look at these responses a bit late. [emphasis added]    (2X)

If e-mail is asynchronous, then how can you look at responses late? Well, you can. There’s a feeling of active inclusion if you’re participating in a conversation as messages are coming in. Following a fairly complete thread after the fact can feel more like reading than collaborating.    (2Y)

There are several potential metrics we can use to study this phenomenon:    (2Z)

  • Average response time in a thread.    (30)
  • Each participant’s average time-of-response.    (31)
  • Average time span of threads.    (32)
  • Correlation between depth of thread and average response time?    (33)
  • Correlation between number of participants in a thread and average response time?    (34)
  • Other possible correlations?    (35)

Using e-mail synchronously may be one effective way to use it, but it may not be the most effective way. One downside is that it excludes people who are unable to participate synchronously, such as people living on the opposite side of the world. Another possible downside is that it encourages superficial thinking at the expense of deeper, more rational discussion. A third possible downside is that it facilitates emotional conflicts (i.e. flames) while impeding resolution of these conflicts.    (36)

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