I am pulling my thoughts together for tonight’s panel at The Podio Store, on the topic of Tools For Work. I will be on the panel with Eugene Kim, David Skult, and Jon Froda, and we’ll be talking about works tools of the past.
We can learn a lot about email and its impacts on work. Most today don’t recall the time prior to widespread email adoption in business, or the transitions involved. We have internalized email to such an extent that for many it is impossible to envision business without it.
One thing we DID learn through the adoption of email is the underestimation of the costs of transition, and the enormous impact of second order effects once the technology has been ubiquitously adopted. Most large businesses required a return on investment analysis to demonstrate direct cost savings prior to adoption of email; in over 70% of the time, no subsequent analysis was performed to see if the expected efficiencies had been achieved. Insteda, the second order effects took over, and companies realized that their businesses had changed so fundamentally post-email that there was no practical way to remove email even if it in fact cost more and led to inefficiencies.
We can anticipate that the same second order effects (as identified by Sproull and Kiesler in Connections) are at work in other techonologies like instant messaging and the streaming collaboration tools that are emerging today, like Podio.
Stowe Boyd, The Business Case For Streams versus Email
How Is This Different From Email, And Does That Matter?
Email is not predicated on social networks, except to the extent that the users of email are networked. The premise is that there is a universe of individuals (and perhaps named groups) to who messages can be directed. And they can send messages to you, if they know your email address.
Like streams, email has sending and receiving contexts, but there is no notion of writing an email message without addressing it to a specific list of people.
Email is addressed, stream posts are released.
Email is private, and the distribution of messages is determined by the author at the time of writing. Individuals may decide to block my messages, but they can’t opt to see all of them. This means that the effective use of the information in the message is based on the premise that the author knows who should read it.
Streams are public (within some defined ‘public’), and the distribution of messages is determined by the actions of all the members of that public. Individuals decide who they will follow, and the collective streaming of information is the result of the affiliation of all the members of the public.
In the context of business, this means that email is selective: the author selects who should read the message. Streams are elective: the eventual recipients of messages elect to receive them. And this election is principally based on the individual, not the topic, per se, although different tools may implment that very differently.
Relative to email’s selection orientation, streaming is based on the premise that individuals might be more effective if they can elect to receive information flows that are potentially useful to them, and therefore, they should be able to make the determination for themselves as to what are the best sources of information.
Looking at this as a ‘wisdom of the crowds’ sort of issue, it is more likely that information will be best distributed within any given group if each person can decide what information sources are likely to provide good information for themself, rather than leaving it up to the sources of information to decide who should have access to it. This is the argument for openness in open societies, as well, and it has an immediate and obvious analog in the workplace.
So, whenever the discussion comes around (once again) about how we already have email, and that all this streaming malarcky is nothing new, please remember that the models are quite different, and at least in some ways are an inversion of each other. Email is inherently more centralized and top-down, while streaming is inherently more distributed and bottom-up.
When we hear arguments against streaming in the business context they are often the same arguments that are made against distribution of decision-making and the value of top-down controls. I won’t go into the counter to these arguments here — they are out of scope — except to point out that bottom-up and distributed business organization is often linked to agile and resilient businesses, ones that are more likely to thrive in challenging and fast-changing circumstances.
Last Thoughts: What We Can Learn From Corporate Email
We are at a juncture in the rise of streams which is similar to the rise of corporate email. People today don’t recall the controversy about adopting corporate email in the ’70s and ’80s, and then again, web-based email in the ’90s.
One lesson to learn is that ROI studies will be asked for prior to roll-out. However, later on, when the entire company and then the world has shifted to email, senior management will realize that there is no return to a pre-email or pre-stream world, and therefore most companies will simply opt not to calculate whether the return was realized. It will be moot. (See Lee and Sproul, Connections, for a detailed examination of this around corporate email.)
The second lesson is interoperability and standards. Corporate email led to a a Cambrian explosion of email products that were largely non-interoperable. It took years to get different systems to intercommunicate, so large companies often had three or more unintegrated email solutions, based on acquisitions, or different groups in different countries making differently local decisions.
We need to start thinking about interoperable streams, from the outset. For example, I have been advocating interoperability of the tumble blog model for some time, which is a specific subset of the more general streams model. Since we have some much innovation going on, this is likely to turn out to be like the SQL standard, which was the intersection of the leading implementations of the SQL model of databases. At any rate, businesses looking to roll out streams in their companies should definitely put pressure on the vendors to commit to interoperability in the next few years, before this gets away from us.