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The unstable equilibrium of collaboration (think prisoners' dilemma)

You probably know the situation. A new project kicks off. A team is formed from a matrix structure and assigned roles. Somebody (would that be you?) suggests that work should be co-ordinated in a collaborative space. Everybody thinks it is a good idea (or at least nobody opposes it). So you create a shared space, apply an appropriate structure to start out with and invite the rest of the team to join.
Then (probably a few days hence) a project participant sends an email with an attachment to the rest of the team. Something that arguably should have been shared via the collaborative space in order to track comments, subject it to version control, make it available for late joiners, make it available for searching - and reduce email clutter.
You may try to rectify the situation by copying the document into the shared space and assign ownership to the author. You may even call up the transgressor to discuss the advantages of using a shared space. But the damage has already been done. Within minutes another team member has hit 'reply all' to circulate initial comments. And another team member will have started a new email thread. From that point onwards, the shared space becomes a fossilised snapshot of what the project looked like shortly after its initiation.
Why did it happen? My suspicion is that it happened because of human nature. Most of us will shy away from work up front in exchange for ill understood and uncertain benefits later on. It is a shortcoming of collaboration tools that there is more work involved with placing a document in a shared space than attaching it to an email. And it is a shortcoming of collaboration tools that there is no easy way to reel in that first email escaping.
Another aspect of human nature is habit. We have spent ten or fifteen years to move away from dictation and printed documents distributed in envelopes to email. It was probably fraught with trouble in the beginning of the email adoption cycle but has ultimately been extremely successful. Now that email is enjoying 100% penetration, we realise that there are smarter ways to get work done.
No doubt we could learn something from the early days of email. Maybe the lesson will turn out to be that building new habits takes time and that everybody needs to understand the benefits. It probably wouldn't hurt either if developers of collaborative tools put more focus on email integration. And human nature.


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