Vivek Haldar

Scaling communication: email vs shared documents

Over the last couple of years, I have noticed a marked change in the way my colleagues and I communicate with each other at work. While still dominant, the use of email seems to have peaked, and folks are increasingly using shared Google docs to not just document a topic, but also to discuss options and arrive at a consensus. (Disclaimer: I’m biased, but take my opinion for what it’s worth.)

Part of it is simply email overload fatigue. The promise of email has been subverted by a number of factors:

  • it is no longer asynchronous: Yes, in theory email’s biggest advantage is that it is asynchronous. I send you a message, it sits in your inbox and you reply to me at your leisure. In the meanwhile, both you and I go about our work merrily. This is simply not the case anymore. People expect a reply pretty much immediately, or within a few hours tops. And we–you and I–the ones who jump on every email and reply to it right now are to blame. Email has completely lost its asynchronous nature, and now sits just a tiny hop away from instant messaging in terms of immediacy.
  • email can’t be deep: it is simply the wrong medium for deep, weighty discussions. Just because you spent an hour pouring out a thousand word essay into an email doesn’t mean the person at the other end with a four-digit number in a red circle showing his unread count will spend the same amount of psychic energy on it. Email is for notifications: “take a look at this”, “hey, this thing broke”. It is for skimming, not for diving. We all know the exponential loss of signal by the time an email thread crosses ten replies or as many people in the to/cc lines.
  • it is inherently attention-fracturing: An inbox is like being in the center of a circle of people, each repeatedly shouting the same phrase at you. Your best bet is to either knock them out (unread archive), or make a quick radial sweek (next, next, next). It is not the place to go for shoring up your attention and focusing.

And it is exactly for all these reasons that shared documents shine.

  • Writing a document focuses you and structures your thought in ways email cannot. It makes you think deeper, further out. The same goes for your readers. Reading well thought out prose will elicit more meaningful feedback than email ever could.
  • comments are inline: in one place, right next to the main body, linked to the part that is commented upon. When you open your document, all the discussion is in one place.
  • all the privacy of email is retained because docs can be shared with just the people you want, or nobody, or made public if you want.
  • And last but not least, with a document you have an artifact that you can refer and link to as a record of work done and thought recorded, as opposed to an email thread.