Resolving the content strategy-email conundrum

email headstone Flickr cc image by cambodia4kidsorg In a recent post on StackExchange, Dr. Chris Atherton mentioned some of the challenges email creates for organisations looking to develop an effective content or intranet strategy:

“You’re living out of your inbox and the company’s intranet. And now people are asking you whether you read that thing that they emailed you and posted on the intranet, because there’s no clearly-defined policy regarding which communiqués belong in which medium — and besides, lots of the people who’ve worked here for years still send emails and attachments, because it’s easier than figuring out the new system, even though they’ve supposedly been on the training course. (Of course, if you do have an intranet if you really want people to live there, you could ban email.)”

Email serves many functions: it’s a medium for one-to-one and one-to-many conversations (replacing the spoken word); it’s a way of communicating policy and procedures (replacing printed documents); it’s a way of sending files; it’s a way of communicating news; and so on. It does most of these inefficiently, resulting in information overload, redundancy and poor information governance. So what can we do about it?

Firstly, email is unlikely to go away completely. If ‘strangers’ are going to contact us, they’re likely to be using email to do that. Even so, it may make sense to explore ways in which email could be replaced in other situations.

We can use wikis and intranets as platforms for long term information (such as policies and procedures). We can use Instant and short Messaging to communicate short term information. But what else could we use?

In our Digitext days, we looked at RSS and metadata as a way for central government staff to be notified and updated of information that was relevant to them. We’ve used labelling and metadata for this purpose on a number of procedures documentation projects at Cherryleaf. These can help with documents.

What about conversations? There’s a debate between BLOBs and chunks in content strategy, and perhaps we could apply the idea of chunks of content to email. Having DITA-based email might be a step too far, but maybe we could look to Github for Writers for inspiration? Git is a social coding environment that allows anyone to fork, push, branch and tag content. Perhaps we could do this with email conversations.

Facebook, Google+ and other forms of social networking might supercede email as the portal we use for communicate. It may be that we’ll see internal corporate platforms develop more fully.

How could email be improved? Use the reply form below to share your thoughts.


Chris Atherton

Hey Ellis

It’s interesting to me that you bring up Git, because to me, that’s almost the antithesis of email. Email is about having all your stuff in one place, and I wonder whether people find reassurance in all that stuff being in a single (in)box, with good threading control (if people adhere to reply/forwarding convention). In contrast, Git seems like a barely game where the object is to create as many forks in the tree, and content variations, as possible — it doesn’t seem designed for following one single trail of information-scent, any more than wikipedia is.

In a way, Google Wave felt like it was onto something, trying to merge all these things, but I’m convinced that the poor UI and lack of discoverability is why it never really took off.

Fun thinking about this stuff. I’m trying to resist the idea of one platonic ideal solution for everyone, because, as I said in the thread on SE, a good intranet solution should be about what the people in the organisation need to do their jobs more effectively, and that’s obviously going to vary by organisation (not to mention size of organisation).

Ellis Pratt

Hi Chris – There would need to be a culture of consensus (or of the wisdom of Solomon) to bring the forks together into an agreed action or opinion.

I thought Google Wave had promise, but everyone had to be using it.

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