Networked Tools and the Email Bottleneck

My friend and colleague, Tony Christopher, recently wrote a wonderful paper entitled, “Tools for Teams: Beyond the Email Bottleneck.” There are two things I really like about the paper, and there’s one thing I want to nitpick here.    (MDS)

First, the good stuff. Tony introduces a new term, “networked tools,” to connote tools that are on the network. These include shared calendars, file repositories, and so forth. Why is this useful? For starters, most people have no idea what a collaborative tool is, and that includes many folks who are ostensibly in the business.    (MDT)

What is a collaborative tool? It’s a tool that facilitates collaboration. Certainly, a shared authoring tool like a Wiki has affordances that facilitate collaboration. But a plain old text editor is just as legitimately a collaboration tool, because it can also be used to facilitate collaboration (for example, when used on a Shared Display).    (MDU)

When most people talk about collaborative tools, what they’re really talking about are networked tools, which is why I think Tony’s term is much more apt.    (MDV)

The main point of Tony’s paper is not to invent a new term, but to shift the focus away from the tool and onto an organization’s needs and processes. His specific advice is a bit oriented towards larger organizations, but the essence of his argument is true for everyone.    (MDW)

My only nitpick with Tony’s paper is that he chooses to pick on email, a favorite practice of another person I like to nitpick on this point, Ross Mayfield. (In fairness to Ross, he’s clearly being a troublemaker — or a good CEO — when he declares email dead, as he’s also written clearly about using email effectively in the context of collaboration. And he’s spot on about occupational spam.) Tony writes:    (MDX)

Email undermines the centralized accumulation of knowledge that could benefit the organization both during the project and long after it’s over. Organizations that have not evolved from email to a broader set of networked tools face lost oportunities and hidden costs.    (MDY)

It’s a bit of a red herring to blame email, because email is a Swiss Army knife. You can do a bunch of things with it, but you’ve got to figure out how to take advantage of this flexibility. This is even more difficult with groups, because if some folks are using their email differently from others, its effectiveness as a collaboration tool drops.    (MDZ)

I suspect that most organizations would see orders of magnitude improvements in how they collaborated if they went through the steps that Tony suggested, then reexamined how they could use email more effectively.    (ME0)

A very simple example of what I mean came out of a conversation with Tara Hunt earlier this week. I was talking to Tara and Chris Messina about their work to move the Freecycle community to something more appropriate to their needs. I observed that while Freecycle could definitely use a better support tool, it’s a great example of how you can leverage a simple mailing list to do amazing collaborative work.    (ME1)

Tara noted that there are 3.5 million people currently on Freecycle, which is amazing. She also observed, “Imagine how many people they would have if the tool were better.” A fair point indeed. When you’ve thought carefully about your patterns and you’ve reached the limit of your tools, the next step for coevolution is to improve your tools. Freecycle — currently serving 3.5 million people effectively — is definitely at that point. Most organizations are not.    (ME2)


Earlier this year, I caught up with my old friend, Aaron Liepman, who’s currently a plant biology postdoc at Michigan State University. Aaron told me about this nationwide phenomenon known as Freecycle. He started two chapters in Michigan, including the first and largest in Detroit.    (1MN)

Here’s how it works:    (1MO)

  • Someone starts up a mailing list in their local community (often a Yahoo! Groups list).    (1MP)
  • People post offers on the list. Everything must be free (and legal).    (1MQ)
  • People respond to offers directly to the poster. When an item is claimed, the poster emails a notice to the list again.    (1MR)

You can also post items that you want. Aaron told me that one person posted on one of his lists asking for a DVD player. He scoffed at the post when he saw it, but sure enough, someone had a DVD player to spare and gave it to the poster.    (1MS)

I’m a reforming packrat, and I’m always trying to get rid of old stuff, so I subscribed to the Palo Alto freecycle soon thereafter. Since I recently replaced my laptop, I decided to give it a shot. This morning, I posted my offer. Literally a few seconds later, I got seven responses. This is for a seven year old laptop running Windows 95! If I hadn’t emailed a taken notice immediately thereafter, who knows how many responses I would have received?    (1MT)

What I love about Freecycle — other than the obvious environmental benefits — is that it’s a wonderful example of patterns trumping tools. First, it’s an innovative and efficient use of mailing lists. Someone could certainly design a custom tool to handle this exchange, but it’s not clear that the gains would be significant. Second, it’s easily replicable. Aaron heard about it and just did it. So did a thousand other cities. Third, it’s a community-builder, just like eBay — a way to discover folks close by with similar interests.    (1MU)

More articles about Aaron and Freecycle:    (1MV)