Blog post

Email is Anti-social Part 1: Communication is Not Collaboration

By Anthony J. Bradley | August 29, 2013 | 9 Comments

In many organizations the highly prolific, if not addictive, use of e-mail is considered an impediment to the adoption of social collaboration or other collaboration methods. People are resistant to use anything but e-mail and sometimes get very protective, sometimes hostile, when asked to use something different. How can you drive change and evolve into a more collaborative/social organization when you can’t get people off of e-mail?

At great risk, I am undertaking a multi-part “E-mail is Anti-social” blog effort to give you reasons why e-mail isn’t a good collaboration tool and to offer a few ways to motivate change.

Let’s start by busting the common misconception that communication and collaboration are the same. They are not. Collaboration is a higher form of communication. That is to say that communication is required for collaboration but not all communication is collaboration.

Communication is the exchange of information to achieve a better understanding.

Mass communication by its nature is highly distributed. The message is projected and received widely. The results of the communication is highly fragmented. It resides in the minds of each and every recipient. And absorption of that message can vary greatly including no absorption at all. This makes it very difficult to measure the success of mass communication.

Collaboration is different.

Collaboration is the exchange of information, and things, to advance the state of a collaborative product.

This product, this entity, this result of the collaborative effort is tangible and central. Everyone works to improve the collaborative product. We judge the success of our collaborative efforts by measuring the change of state of the collaborative product. This makes success much easier to measure.

To illuminate this difference let’s pursue a thought experiment using Legos. Let’s say 748 of us are collectively trying to build a Star Wars interceptor with Legos. Each of us has a Lego piece to this interceptor. If we were to work together to assemble this interceptor we would be collaborating. We would judge our success by measuring the accuracy and speed by which we were able to build this interceptor. The interceptor is the collaborative product we are trying to advance. I will continue to use this Lego thought experiment throughout the remainder of this multi-part blog.

Lego Interceptor Pitch

It is ironic that our most ubiquitous collaboration tool, email, isn’t a very good collaboration tool. It is a highly successful communication tool. It has been so successful that it has become the default for IT based human interactions. Regardless of whether or not it is an effective tool for those interactions. In the next blogs I’ll examine a few of the primary characteristics that make it a great communication mechanism but a poor collaboration tool.

Ok, let’s hear your feedback. I’m sure some e-mail zealots out there are already fuming 🙂

Leave a Comment


  • Phil Mayer says:

    This is an amazing article that really hits the nail on the head when it comes to email’s flaws!

    You should definitely check out our service SquadMail ( that makes email collaborative by letting you share synchronized gmail labels (or any IMAP email folder) with others (think: “Dropbox for email).

    Instead of CCing your entire team on an email, simply apply a shared label to it and it’ll show up in just the right place in your colleagues’ inboxes.

    Additionally, each label also gets its own email address so that you can email groups directly or set up inboxes in your email client for receiving newsletters etc.

    Let me know what you think about it!

  • Robert says:

    One problem is that my relationship with people is rarely for just one collaboration unit. Collaboration is usually focused on a specific task (as per the example). E-mail is task agnostic. People have fewer mail boxes than things they are collaborating on. Minimizing places one has to look for information is usually a personal goal that conflicts with collaboration system.

  • Gerry Carr says:


    This is perfectly true (minimising places one has to look as a goal) but we deal with that by context-swtiching for our users. In BCSocial you can have a Personal Inbox View (task agnostic) then then when you need more information on that task switch contexts into that task/project/team.

    This has the advantage of being able to scan and then dive in depending on your work mode. The storing of documents, versioning then happens against the project or team but you don’t _have_ to engage with it that way. It’s pretty intuitive. Let me know if you’d like to see the system some time. You can me @gerrycarr

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Thanks for your comment. You are very correct and this is yet another mindset change that real impactful collaboration requires. And that is that we must go to the collaboration and not expect it to come to us. We must accept the need and benefit of going to different places/environments to collaborate rather than expecting a one-size-fits-all. This applies not only to e-mail but also to social software suites such as Sharepoint or Connections. We must get away from the “technology” focus which leads us to a single environment mentality (e.g., you can collaborate on anything you want as long as it is in Sharepoint). Highly impactful collaboration happens where it will thrive not where the IT organization wants it to happen.

    Treat it more like a solution. We all go to numerous applications to get our work done from word processing, to expenses, to time tracking, to HR benefits, to CRM, to accounting, and on and on and on. We would never expect our employer to provide one single corporate application that does all these things. Personally, we also go to numerous Web sites to search, read, to buy, interact, etc. We would never expect the world to go to one web site (although Facebook might :-)). And yet we expect to go to one place for all collaboration whether it is collaborative authoring, collaborative design, enterprise Q&A, collectively overcoming sales objections, ideation, social BPM, social CRM, etc. It isn’t realistic. We simply must accept that we will need to go to different places for different types of collaboration. E-mail is the one place to go for sending general communication messages. It is not the place to go to collaborate on the next big product launch, or to build the next big proposal, or to redefine a major business process. I’m not saying each and every collaboration has it’s own technology/place. The answer is more than 1 but not too many.

    Sorry for the long response but clearly you touched a nerve 🙂 This topic really deserves its own post.

  • Dean Lythgoe says:

    Thank you for your thoughts and ideas on collaboration. I think there is some very interesting points you have made – like not all communication is collaboration.

    Unfortunately, most social collaboration advocates really miss the mark about email and collaboration. Most important is that social seldom replaces email and most email systems – except Gmail – are so much more than just email. They include calendaring, contact managements, task management, teaming, content management, and document management. Let alone all of the real-time collaboration tools that are integrated or facilitated via email. Only small organizations have commodity email and only use email for email.

    Email’s strength via SMTP is its ability to communicate with virtually anyone. That is also SMS’s strength. The challenge with most social collaboration tools is that to participate, you must be in their system. Facebook, Google+, Yammer, etc. are all examples of protocol limiting solutions. Everybody in or someone is out. Email let’s everyone in.

    That is the biggest reason why people do not want to or can not leave their email. It is also why SMTP and SMS are here to stay.

    Another important point, from my point of view, is that social advocates only try to replace email instead of more prudently complementing email. Social collaboration should leverage SMTP/SMS and improve email via social interfaces instead of forcing users to change their primary habitat.

    Email is not anti-social….email is the the protocol which should facilitate and expand social. Social collaboration has missed the mark by not leveraging email as the connection/technology by which they create interesting interfaces that are social and do it within the habitat where people already spend their time.


  • Great article. I would make the argument that even for internal communication, business social networking is better than email in the following ways:

    – It simply feels a lot easier and faster
    – Communications (unless you explicitly mark them as private) are transparent, and available for others to follow and learn from.
    – If communications involve more than two people, social tools are simply more efficient.

    I did a video on how email is murderous for knowledge management that you might want to see –

  • Russ Norton says:

    Great article Anthony

  • Russ Norton says:

    Within my company we have an ambition to become an email free environment by early 2014. Interesting challenge I know.

    Having spent thirty years or so with email at the heart of my daily life it really was a challenge to see benefits of next generation collaboration tools combined with the behavioural changes needed to adopt them.

    From a knowledge perspective I see that for each and every email I choose to file away in the depths of an email folder I am restricting knowledge to my colleagues who may need it. What may not be valuable to me could actually be significant to someone else whom I have never met sat on the other side of the planet.
    Whether its reusing a presentation, finding info on an offer or proposal etc. it’s clearly going to benefit by sharing rather than hoarding,

    Knowledge hoarding in email is not the right information management strategy for sure, even in reinventing the wheel time and time again through inaccessible information.

    I do agree whatever is the answer needs to have IM/SMS type comms in mind within the strategy.

  • jeff kennedy says:

    This is a good article, and a good series, thanks.

    Email is anti-social, i agree entirely with that, and also that it’s anti-collaborative.

    As a label, “collaboration” is a much-abused, much-overused term. We have a three-category dimension that ranges from:

    * connecting (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr)


    * sharing (e.g., “here is a copy of my reference architecture”)


    * collaboration, which is specifically those behaviours that result in Building Something Together (“busoto”, if you like,

    Email sits below connecting in that hierarchy, the poorest connection style on offer.