Igor Zalutski

@igorzij

Email, slack and docs are meant to be one thing

In response to "Slack is the opposite of organizational memory" post by Abe Winter who argues that chat-driven workplace culture and Slack in particular are harmful for the business in the long run. I’m skipping many points highlighted by Abe so reading it first might give a better picture.

The problem of information flow management, with workplace communication as one of the most important aspects, is something I spend a lot of time thinking of. There always seems to be a bunch of startups trying to "replace email" yet again, some come and go, some stick longer, but the central problem of communication somehow remains unsolved still.

At the same time, omnipresent chatting seems to be doing quite well despite the massive tradeoffs of "reactive thinking" and constant distraction. These must be then justified by other benefits. Perhaps chatting solves another problem altogether. Perhaps the manifested framing of the problems supposed to be solved by workplace chat apps just isn’t reflecting the real substance — Slack is great, but so is email, in a different way. In their present form both tools are complimentary, neither is clearly superior or complete.

In my very much simplified model, it all boils down to just a couple things we haven't yet found a way to balance optimally and flexibly enough:

  • Individual attention focus. It’s well-known that true multitasking doesn’t exist (for any given set of tasks, the less context switches the higher productivity; the only reason why we’re still praising it is higher efficiency for handling urgent matters that sometimes justifies the tradeoff). Email remains the clear leader here, with significant downsides of having no practical way to prioritize and inefficient filtering.
  • Prioritization and escalation. Messages are not created equal in importance, and their "relevance" and target audience can change over time. By promoting omnipresence (and implicitly punishing absence), chat culture ensures that important stuff is addressed. But that’s a dirty hack with huge downsides. At the extremes however there already are much better tools like PagerDuty. It seems to me that we’re simply missing a crucial concept of structured escalation for everything, not just burning issues, and as soon as this is figured out offices will instantly become much better places.
  • Context capturing and knowledge sharing. Neither email nor chats do it well; the gap is filled instead by doc-sharing tools, originally G and now things like Quip making it even more discoverable and easy to use. It’s notable that chatting and notifications in some form are always part of it - this could well mean that we’re just trying to address the same root problem from different angles.
  • Audience management. Mentions, threads, cc / bcc all serve the same purpose - keep relevant people in the loop while not cluttering attention of others / keeping it private. Related to individual attention, but from the "push" end - kind of altering the "desired state" of attention surface.

If we assume that all these are aspects of one problem that can be solved by one product that doesn't exist yet, it follows that the basic framework we're operating with is incomplete and insufficient even to hypothesize productively. Some basic building blocks, primary concepts, are missing; otherwise at the very least the problem would have been phrased and explored well by now. That's the only way to explain why we have all sorts of successful messaging platforms but somehow very little qualitative progress in the last 2 decades on that front (except for shared docs).

I’d argue that the concept of "message" is what holding us back. No matter what one builds around it, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Simply because real life conversations tend to be bound to lots of context, not hanging in the vacuum. Hence threading, rooms etc — but those are still drastic simplifications. Another aspect is how it changes over time. Importance for all parties involved, urgency, audience changes, resolution, and later transforming it into something discoverable — these workflows are very inefficient with chats, much better with email but still not great.

A message is in fact a manifestation of unsolved problem, with its own lifecycle. Very few levers exist in today's software to pull for lifecycle changes. Email paired with elaborate filters and smart notifications remains leaps and bounds ahead of everything else.

Now, I don’t really know the answer to the "if not message then what?" question. But I’m quite confident that there, in the structure of basic concepts we’re operating with, in the fundamental thinking framework, lies the key to solving the most pressing problem of our day if not epoch — information overflow.

History holds records of many qualitative leaps we’ve made before: speech, then writing, then printing, then internet. Each and every time after the core concept was created a lot of adjacent ones came to existence — languages, libraries, social networks, the list goes on. But digital communication seems to be lagging behind. We’re still thinking in terms of written letters, the only difference now is way of delivery. We can do better than that.

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