Email Conversations as Discussion Threads

By Deane Barker on December 25, 2003

Shadows of future versions of Outlook?: Here’s a look at an internal company memo about how to organize email messages. Essentially, you treat email conversations as threads of a discussion forum conversation.

…about half the time you use e-mail, it’s a no-brainer. Someone sends you a message, you reply, they reply back, and it’s done. But if there’s nine people on the ‘to’ line, and each one is throwing his or her hat into the conversational ring — making decisions, offering suggestions, providing links to back up their story, or jumping in to IM you — it becomes harder to understand who is saying what to whom.

This begs the question, of course, why use email at all? To go back to Ray Ozzie’s article of a few weeks ago:

Anyone who is doing a critical business process online that involves substantial dialog between individuals should NOT be using email at this point in history, and many no longer are.

I’m also reminded of a report about silverorange’s intranet that I read when they won the Nielsen Norman Group’s award for Best Intranet in 2001. In the report, they said that use of the discussion forums on their intranet has all but replaced email conversations as the primary means of group communication.

If you think about it, discussion forum conversations (“pull” instead of “push”) really should take the place of group email conversations. By why don’t they? What attachment to email do we have that we can’t break?