McAfee’s Hypothesis (plus contest results!)

by Andrew McAfee on October 9, 2009

In a happy coincidence, blogger-who-needs-no-introduction Robert Scoble wrote about attributes of email just a few days before my Wednesday post on the same topic. Scoble’s succinct conclusion was that “email sucks,” and that Google Wave might well be worse. He makes an interesting argument, and I urge you to check it out.

Scoble lists the tools he uses for collaboration, and as I read through them I realized that I’d left an important item off my own list of email’s strengths. Scoble uses, in addition to email, at least six tools: Skype, Twitter, Friendfeed groups, a document repository like SharePoint or Dropbox, wikis, and domain-specific collaboration tools like ConceptShare.

He doesn’t describe any problems with this state of affairs, but I can only imagine what would happen if a similar collaboration suite were proposed at the consulting company I mentioned in my previous post. If a CIO or collaboration specialist told the partners that they’d soon be using seven collaboration tools instead of one, that person would very soon find himself exploring other career opportunities (I’d say “fired on the spot,” but the company I’m thinking of is too classy for that).

Like a lot of executives, consulting partners are in almost constant motion, very busy, and pulled in about eight directions at any time. They keep a death grip on their inboxes for one main reason: because it’s the one place they can go to find out what’s new and what the current state of affairs is, and also to respond, react, and initiate. Email is perfect for none of these purposes, but it’s perceived as good enough for all of them. As a result, it’s currently used for all of them; it’s one-stop shopping for collaboration at lots and lots of companies.

I want to be clear: I agree with Scoble, Luis Suarez, and many others that it’s possible to much better than all email, all the time. I’m trying to make three points with this post and its predecessor. First, that all email, all the time yields many problems but also one benefit: one-stop shopping for all collaboration activities. Second, that that benefit is highly valued by busy senior managers. And third, that these managers get to call the shots for the collaborations they’re involved in.

Let me sharpen that last point by floating a hypothesis about digital collaboration and immodestly naming it after myself:

McAfee’s hypothesis: Within organizations, collaboration technologies are dictated by the most powerful person involved in the collaboration.

This hypothesis only applies to technologies used for collaboration, which is defined by Merriam Webster as “work[ing] jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.” So blogging, tweeting and retweeting, tagging, voting, linking, and trading in prediction markets aren’t really collaborative activities, while working as a team to prepare a client presentation or develop code clearly are.

A couple implications follow from McAfee’s hypothesis if it’s true. First, email’s going to be around for a while yet, and to continue to be the main collaboration tech in many (if not most) corporate settings for some time to come. As the incumbent technology, it’s the beneficiary of the 9X effect and the status quo bias, both of which are part the basic psychological wiring of most people and so hard to overcome. And as long as powerful people value the status quo and one-stop shopping, email will persist as the engine of collaboration. A lot of us might not like this fact, but there’s not a lot we can do about it, at least in the short term.

Second, blogging, tweeting, tagging, &etc. can take off in an organization even without the involvement of powerful people. This is because, as discussed above, they’re not collaboration technologies, and so less subject to the preferences of the powerful. It’s easy for me to imagine a big consulting firm deploying microblogging software, having it take off among junior associates, and realizing a lot of value even if no partners get involved.

As I wrote in my previous post, the continued dominance of email is in no way a death blow for Enterprise 2.0. In my book I describe six business benefits from Enterprise 2.0: group editing, authoring, broadcast search, network formation and maintenance, collective intelligence, and self-organization. Of these, only group editing aligns closely with the classic definition of collaboration. The others are all examples of technology-facilitated interaction among people, but as we all know there are many types of interaction.

A third implication is that email-light and email-free collaborations like the ones Scoble describes are absolutely possible, but only if the involved powers that be want to work this way. Even big traditional companies, teams in the IT department use wikis heavily for project management and bug tracking. This occurs because the head geek (term of praise, remember) likes wikis and wants to use them, and often says “I’m not reading emails about project status; use the wiki for updates.”

The hypothesis further implies, though, that if a more senior manager gets added to the project and wants to get all updates via email, then this is what will happen.

There’s a lot more to be said on this topic, I’m sure, but let me stop here and ask for feedback. Does McAfee’s hypothesis make sense? Does it correspond to your experience and intuition? Have you seen glaring violations: situations where a collaboration technology flourished despite the wishes / preferences of the most powerful people involved? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

Now for some fun on a Friday. In my October 2 post, I threw out a challenge: “How many… English words can you come up with that are derived from the names of people in myths and legends who are neither gods nor the children of gods?”

A few word geeks self-identified by posting responses.

SamW made the sharp observation that “the hard part is remembering whether someone was a god or related to a god or not. I’m pretty confident about: arachnid, odyssey, narcissism, tantalize… less so about: echo” Excellent work all around. Arachne was a woman who committed the unpardonable sin of hubris, boasting that she was a better weaver than Minerva. For this, she was turned into a spider, thereby giving her name to an entire class of eight-legged invertebrates, the arachnids. “Odyssey” comes from the hero Odysseus, who had a long strange trip home.

SamW is also smart to be less sure about Echo, who in myth was a nymph who fell in love with the beautiful boy Narcissus, who only wanted to look at his own reflection. Unrequited love caused her to pine away until only her voice remained. However, since nymphs are commonly considered minor deities she doesn’t count, although he does; narcissism is now a word for excessive self-regard.

I thought tantalize was a great answer at first; he was a mythical Greek king who tried to fool the gods into eating human flesh. Zeus saw through this right away and killed him, then gave him a nasty eternal afterlife. As Wikipedia puts it, “Tantalus’s punishment, now proverbial for temptation without satisfaction (the source of the English word “tantalise” – US “tantalize ), was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any.” The only problem here is that Tantalus was himself a son of Zeus, and so disallowed for this challenge.

Carl Frappaolo proposed narcissistic, herculean, echo, and homeric. Hercules, though, was also a son of Zeus (who really got around), and so disallowed. “Homeric,” meaning heroic or epic, is tricky. If Homer was an actual person he’s disallowed (the question is only about figures from myth and legend), but his existence is very much in dispute. So let’s accept “Homeric.”

Digiphile went with “Narcissism. Sisyphean task. Chimera. Delphic. Labyrinth.” “Sisyphean,” meaning endless and ineffective, is a great answer. It comes to us from Sisyphus, a Greek king and jerk so epic that he displeased the gods. They condemned him to roll a rock up a steep hill; the rock would always roll back down, and he’d have to do it again, over and over for all eternity. “Delphic” and “Labyrinth,” though, refer to places, not personages, so they’re out. And a chimera (modern meaning: an organism or organ made by grafting or genetic engineering) was a monster, not a person. So no dice.

Jmcaddell proposed “Titan, odyssey, jovial, atlas, bacchanalian, martial, herculean, nymph, music, lyric” Digiphile (who was really into this challenge, evidently) responded with “John, you’ve got a fine command of language …but nearly all of those are derived from gods or their children. Titan was an old school god, jovial refers to Jove or Zeus, martial is from Mars, Hercules was the son of Jove and the Muses were minor deities.”  So there.

After I thought about my own challenge, I came up with:

Stentorian, meaning very loud, from Stentor, a herald on the Greek side in the Trojan war.

Procrustean means rigidly conformist or “marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances.” Procrustes was a bandit who, according to Wikipedia, “had an iron bed in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly because secretly Procrustes had two beds.” Wikipedia also tells me, though, that he was a son of Poseidon, so I lose on this one.

Adonis was a beautiful man born from the myrrh tree (in most versions). His name is now a generic term for a mimbo.

Pander, meaning to provide gratification for others’ desires, was the best one I came up with. It comes from Pandarus, who faciltated the illicit love between Troilus and Cressida. Googling around taught me that that story is not actually part of Greek mythology, but instead was invented in the 12th century. I’m still giving myself full credit, though, because Pandarus does appear as a character in the Iliad, and his name does give us that verb. Plus, it’s my challenge, and I’m still mad about ‘procrustean.’

A very smart friend of mine said “Are we confined to Greek and Roman myths and legends? Because if not, I propose ‘maudlin.'” Maudlin, meaning overly sentimental, is an alteration of the name of Mary Magdalene, who in some Christian writing is portrayed as a reformed prostitute who weeps much as she seeks forgiveness. A brilliant answer, and I’m giving it full marks even if Mary Magdalene was a real person.

Let me know if there’s appetite for more word geek challenges. If so, I’ll see what I can come up with…

Brian Tullis October 10, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Right on @amcafee. Most powerful person wants email? Use a tool that emails to them. Good ones do that now; they avoid it at their peril

thureb October 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Totally agree. It's always top down. It has always been. It's how e-mail came about late -70's and that's why effective virtual teams need to agree on what tools to use for what purpose.
And. It start's with the leader wanting and desciding what methods to use.
e-mail has some great strengths as an “ask for action” top down tool. It's even great for a discussion between two people. But as soon more than two gets involved in a discussion using mail it's an unbelievable productivity disaster.

In my mind Google wave is the most promising platform I have seen for 30 years. One reason for that is that it seams to have all the strengths of mail, but also the strengths of shared document, wiki's, concurrent editing, discussion, IM, microblogg etc. All in the same 'package'.
And. It's just combining technologies already out there in a smart way.
So we can use the same environment for action, information and collaboration.

suluclac October 12, 2009 at 8:47 am

Why wasn't the switch from hand-writing to typewriter “Enterprise 2.0″? Why wasn't it “Enterprise 2.0″ when the telephone was introduced into the business?

You can transmit data fast or slow; you can share it broadly or narrowly. But in the end business success depends on how the data is used by people applying their knowledge.

I'd rather have Shakespeare and a quill than a million monkeys with typewriters.

Doug Cornelius October 13, 2009 at 8:35 am

I will make a lawyerly response and say “it depends.”

If your boss wants a weekly report sent by email, then email will be the technology. If she wants projects kept up to date in the wiki, then the wiki will be the technology. But part of the team could be using another technology and pushing their completed work into the boss’s preferred technology.

Of course you can argue as to whether the activity is truly collaboration. As well, you could argue about whether the whole team is collaborating or just subsets.

From personal experience, I have worked with a team that lived in your second implication. We used a wiki very successfully without participation from the head of the team. The users of the wiki realized tremendous value. The leader ended up being isolated and we ended up having lots of meetings that merely repeated information that had already been processed through the wiki.

I have also led a team that I imposed a wiki upon. As the head geek, I liked the wiki as a way to manage the multitude of projects. I badgered them into using the wiki, updated the wiki myself, pointed out the answers to questions that were already in the wiki, and led by example. After the initial resentment, they came to realize the benefits and became wiki-lovers. That required my as the head of the team, to impose my will and spend the time, energy and organizational capital on this new tool. Of course, the junior members of the team may have been using email or other technology to collaborate among themselves.

In the end, I think people will use one set of technology tools that they like the best. Then they will use another set of technology tools to comply with the demands of others. Ideally, you would like those two sets of technology tools to mostly overlap.

antonyslumbers October 16, 2009 at 8:11 am

Email is nigh on useless for collaborating but yes you are right that, “Within organizations, collaboration technologies are dictated by the most powerful person involved in the collaboration.” However the most powerful person collaborating is unlikely to be the most powerful person in the organisation. 2+2 = 5 thinking is rare above a certain level. Hence, your CIO advocating Scoble's approach would be shown the door. Paradoxically seniority often narrows the mind. Do what I say is more common than 'what do you think?'. Let alone, what does the customer think?

In this world email is fine.

But it is a world coming to an end as a younger generation (or the Net Generation as Don Tapscott calls them) comes of age. For them, collaboration is all and openness and transparency is a good thing. The head geek today will be 'everyman' tomorrow. And in that world email will just be one tool they use. Twitter, Wave, Glasnost21 – these and similar tools will soon replace email.

Whether 'soon' is one year or ten it is simply a matter of time. The days of email being the tool of choice of the powerful is drawing to a close.

So, to answer your question – Yes but No !!

Doug Cornelius October 16, 2009 at 8:35 am

I don't think you should jump too quickly on the “younger generation of Web 2.0 changing everything” bandwagon. I just gave a presentation on the use of Web 2.0 to a class of college students. They were mystified and skeptical. We should not equate the use of IM and Facebook as the equivalent of embracing collaboration tools/Enterprise 2.0.

cofiem October 17, 2009 at 2:30 am

I really agree with the idea that the most powerful person in a collaboration dictates how that collaboration takes place. It's also a keen observation that tools which approach collaboration, but don't quite get there (usually to do with output) do not fall under this hypothesis.

Email is a scourge, but we cannot work without it. It is most certainly the 'dashboard' of today. I would love to take email away and replace it with tools much more suited to individual jobs, but as yet there are no simple ways to bring the really suitable tools into a single place.

As the tools mature along with the current crop of 20-something geeks, I think we'll see some progress on that front. Where would business be without the geeks?

G. Lance Strzok October 18, 2009 at 10:51 am


I agree with your hypothesis in most cases. I think in some organizations there is a board rather than one person that makes that kind of decision. If not a board, then a small group of “go to” people that the CEO looks to for advice on decisions that may not fall completely into his/her expertise.

However, if the boss wants the email signal, then he/she gets the email signal.

If the boss wants collaboration done by way of email, then I would encourage that we ask him/her what it is they want, and then agree to deliver what they want, but argue that collaboration by way of email is not the way to go. With that I'll say that often you don't directly change the boss's mind on how to do something, rather the boss usually has a number of “go to” people that they seek advice from. Those are the people that need to see the value of the tools and make that argument to the boss. Finding those trusted “go to” people would be key.

As for email as a collaboration tool, of course it stinks, but your points on its ubiquity are true and the death grip on it also true. Why do you suppose that is? I think that part of the reason this is so is that at some point or another in a persons life, they are held to “I sent you an email” and by default it became something we are held accountable for. If it is the method by which we will hold people accountable, then it will not go away anytime soon. How can we change it too, “I posted it to my blog, of which you (and the rest of the staff) were directed to monitor and read when new posts are made.”? I of course like to see us get to this point, but I am not aware of a single place yet in my place of business where this is the case yet. (I'll keep working on it).

I would prefer to send an email with a link to the projects wiki page or other technology where the boss can see what is being done, and get what it is that they are looking for. Be it a dashboard on the project, milestones etc…

Jen Cornelssen Ellis October 19, 2009 at 7:09 am

THREE thoughts on email relative to your engaging blog:
1) Busy people in corporate world favor PUSH communication rather than PULL as long as they are not nagged unnecessarily – I.e. social media that requires people to check many places is often forgotten, email can be the ping that wakes people up.
2) I question if the very MOST powerful people (e.g. CEOs) really USE email – I think email is a corporate necessity of the people who make the organization run, but they use it out of necessity, not because they are following the role model of a corporate exec.
3) Email does have the advantage of being easily and reliably referenced based on simple factors such as date – e.g. 'I know I worked on that project in April of 06, let me look for the details there' – while other tools claim such functionality, it does not work in practice because the tools are changing so often and historical information is not typically accessible once the latest tool has been mandated and the prior one shut down.
Keep up the fascinating blogs – they are one of the few sites I 'PULL' information from!
– biz consultant, turned High Tech Corporate functionoid, now happily released to academia – still a geek at heart.

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esl english October 27, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Working in a team is certainly harder than tweeting, or sending emails. In fact it's one of the most coveted habilities a worker can have.

driessen November 10, 2009 at 8:57 am

Nice post! We researched this starting from the other side. We looked at the way information flows through the company and how personal information flows. What you see is that almost all digital info comes to you via email. This is one of the reasons people find it hard to maintain tools next to their email. If email is our habitat (or it has been and will be so for some more years as you say), be sure the new collaboration tool you set up connects to email in some way. Also refer to this paper: Documents at hand.

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