March 11, 2003

I've had some recent experiences, minor ones, regarding email, collaboration and attention. I'm doing a ThinkOutLoud here, so bear with me.

First, a friend shared with a number of us an email thread he'd been involved in. The small geographically team he's on had fallen into a complaint about too much email coming through the pipe. My friend disagreed, arguing that for a productive development team of the size they are, anywhere between 20 and 100 emails a day would be the norm. The concept of this much input seemed to terrify the colleagues unecessarily.

Meanwhile, thanks to Jon Udell I've come across this piece by Ole Eichorn entitled the Tyranny of Email. This piece, so worth reading it's probably already linked on 35% of the logs pinging (and yes, it's been /.'d), throws a couple issues about managing email tools (rather than them managing you), and then ices the cake by providing some commonsense approaches to managing time and interruption by the "Three Hour Rule."

Finally, in our as much RTC as email communicating workplace, a coworker suddenly decided to run silent and deep without chat for a few hours. We could still contact him by chattering over the cubicle wall, of course, but he claimed it actually did make him more productive for non-interactive tasks. But at the same time, some of our regular co-working habits were briefly interrupted. In most cases this was good - we can still think on our own. But the first case, the "hey, where is he?" case was minorly jarring until we grokked it.

So what does this all mean? On the one hand, we need the interaction of communication, the problem sharing, idea solving, communal thinking it provides. On the other hand, we do (even George Bush below) need some time to think alone.

Our tools can provide the means to solve some of this. For example, one of the big selling points of the tool we worked on at Parlano was the concept of filtering in real-time-chat. Not filtering as "don't let anything in unless it meets some rule" but "let it all in, but stay aside unless it's something I care about. So people would set up ego filters to let them know when they were being discussed, or keywords raised of importance to their daily tasks.

And the tool also allowed - as almost all RTC tools now allow - one to set the level of availability one provided (Online, Away, Offline, etc). So we could broadcast our status as well as manage the input provoked by that status.

This is a good start. Obviously learning and conceptual filters would be a stronger tool. Maybe someone will write that.

In my mind there's the meta-issue to the tools, the concept that people need to be open to collaboration. The other users in the first case seem to be afraid of it, as if the time spent interacting and learning together would take away from the seemingly more pressing tasks at hand.

But open is not defenseless. Use the filters, turn off the alerts, when things need to be done in quiet. Seek the balance of availability, informed and productive at each moment. And make sure you understand the balance for yourself and your coworkers. But don't hide from collaboration.

Posted by esinclai at March 11, 2003 10:24 PM |