One inbox to rule them all?
Way back in the mists of time when I first started my professional career in DFID we had but a few places from where we would get instructions and requests or where we could find the information we needed to get our work done. Basically we had a full set of procedure manuals on the shelf, an inbox for inter-office memos and the circulation file for general “might be of interest” announcements and interesting articles as well as two month old copies of The Economist and Paris Match (because we were all supposed to be practicing our French).
Now when I come in to the office (or more likely shortly after I wake up) I scan through the following: work e-mail, private e-mail accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Teamworks (UNDP’s internal social network), the Coordination Practice Network, our office Intranet, Feedly (for my RSS feeds both news and blogs I follow). Less regularly I also check LinkedIn, my old UNICEF e-mail (yes I still get messages there), KM4Dev, Zunia and a whole host of other networks and communities I signed up for at one time or another. And that’s not to mention text messages, instant messages (on at least three different platforms), Skype and telephone. The only thing I don’t check is my office mail slot – because I never get anything there.
Overall the greater access to information and diversity of channels is a very positive thing. I’m able to find out about things and respond to them much more quickly and get access to a much wider range information and expertise to help inform my work than I could have even imagined when I first started working. And the fact that this is almost real-time allows discussions, collaboration and feedback loops that were all but impossible before.
But one big peeve with this Brave New World is the fragmentation of all this information, and the challenge of keeping up to date with it all, knowing which things to follow and managing my time to check so many different inboxes and networks. Just how many social networks do you need to follow?, and how often do you need to check them to keep in touch with colleagues and keep up to date on the latest thinking? What are the chances that you are NOT checking precisely that network where the contact or information you need is most easily accessible? And what advice do you give to your late adopting tech-wary colleagues about where they should put their efforts and expend their limited attention (and why should they bother to be part of your community when they are already struggling with so much stuff)?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could go to one place to get all your development related updates and messages? (or whatever topic it is that interests you). Can’t we all our contacts use the same set of tools? But if this is such a simple idea why don’t we have it already?
One attempt to solve this problem has been through the development of knowledge portals. Many organizations have tried and failed to produce knowledge portals that have “everything you need to know about X”. Curating “everything” about a topic is a monumental effort that is unlikely to find everything that is out there, and also such a portal will necessarily reflect the views and information architecture preferences of the curator which will not fully meet the needs of a diverse group of users. Competition between different portals can also confuse things and sometimes even means that people are not willing to share their content with each other forcing users to follow multiple portals defeating the original intent.
Another approach at the organizational level is to pick a software platform that “does everything”. Many software companies are keen to sell corporate platforms that include social collaboration, messaging, content feeds often laid over work process software – common examples being done through SharePoint. These are usually expensive custom creations within any organization and they don’t always play nicely with external software tools, especially social ones.
The other fix that many of us use is to get e-mail notifications from our various systems and funnel them to a single inbox. The challenges with this are that your inbox quickly becomes overloaded with diverse updates, some systems don’t provide e-mail updates or at least not useful ones and for me at least I still find the need to split these systems somewhat artificially into my work and private e-mail accounts (e.g. twitter – is it work or private?) also because of limitations on the size of our work inboxes and concern about how “private” my work e-mail really is.
Some advocate for moving away from e-mail altogether. Something I’d like to see in, in theory, but it only works if everyone you collaborate with also moves off e-mail and agrees on a common platform (or small set of platforms) to use – something that seems highly unlikely in my work environment where every little thing is done by e-mail and where social platforms are still used by a relatively small “enlightened” few – and many of those are internal platforms that don’t easily allow collaboration across organizations.
What I’d really like to see, but haven’t yet, is a software tool that would allow you to have a personal “mega-inbox” or dashboard that would combine together all the various streams that I’m interested in, business and personal, my e-mails, social networks, RSS feeds and monitored intranet pages. Ideally such a tool would be portable i.e. accessible by the web and not tied to my employer so I could take it with me if I switch jobs (although my access to feeds from internal sources wouldn’t continue if I leave an organization). It would allow us each to use the tools and networks we feel most comfortable with but be able to add new ones without learning new tools and new logins. What this would need is a common system for providing and authenticating feeds and for processing user postings that could work across all of the most common platforms.
This could be an enormous productivity boost for all of us, and a great opportunity for some enterprising software developer out there – so what are you waiting for!