The practice of collaborative innovation opens the door to meaningfully transforming the ways in which people engage with one another as they pursue the critical questions facing the organization. Understanding the extent to which people continue to use incumbent means of collaboration can help you to understand the extent to which they have embraced the practice. In this article Doug Collins suggests having a look at our old friend, e-mail.

You’ve Got… Ideas

People who promote collaborative innovation often seek a point of reference that can provide insight on the extent to which the practice has advanced within their organization. To what extent have their colleagues embraced the practice as a means to realize their potential for leadership in innovation? What reservations do they hold in committing themselves to the practice?

By “collaborative innovation” I mean the practice of convening a community of people in person and virtually to explore and come to a deeper understanding of the critical questions facing the organization.

A number of approaches to benchmarking rates of adoption suggest themselves (e.g., frequency and likelihood of use studies, participant interviews, web analytics, etc.). I also recommend considering as part of this enquiry the extent to which the organization persists in using the incumbent means of sharing ideas: electronic mail—e-mail. In this article I explore why doing so can yield valuable insights.


E-mail may seem as far removed from the practice of collaborative innovation as a monastic retreat appears from a leisurely afternoon at the dog track. E-mail is linear. Collaborative innovation is recursive. E-mail is directive. Collaborative innovation invites enquiry. E-mail is targeted. Collaborative innovation is open.

Yet, e-mail enjoys the incumbent’s spot in most organizations. It arrived on the scene first, long before other forms of information technology that allow people to share their insights virtually. Over the past decades, people have adopted e-mail and its cousin instant messaging for many applications, including ad hoc collaboration. E-mail likewise benefits from the attributes of ubiquity and simplicity. Everyone knows how to press Send.

Let’s dig more deeply by exploring how people adopt e-mail to support the three critical conversations that comprise the practice of collaborative innovation. The three follow.

  • The enquiry: one person seeks another’s perspective on an idea.
  • The exploration: some form of back and forth, or sharing of information and further insights occurs as the parties explore the potential of the idea
  • The resolution: the parties reach some form of closure on the enquiry, from the passing “well, maybe not,” to the affirming, “yes, thank you, I plan to pursue the matter further.”

Next, consider the three conversations in the context of e-mail communications.

To start, we live by the e-mailed enquiry: the one-liner. We have a friend at work. Someone we trust and someone whose opinion we respect. We “shoot them an e-mail” along the lines of, “Do you think we… ?” or “What if we… ?” by way of sharing an idea or insight. E-mail enquiries are simple to start and can reach almost everyone. In this way email remains the prevalent means of applying information technology in support of innovation: albeit with an enquiry shared by a community of two.

Click to enlarge

By contrast, e-mail as a communications mechanism suffers during the subsequent exploration phase. Attaching explanatory documents and copying increasingly wider circles of friends and colleagues becomes unwieldy and unwelcome. People long to be removed from the copy list on the dreaded e-mail thread. Can one unsubscribe without ruffling feathers? This challenge of sharing meaning by proxy has spawned a cottage industry of firms claiming to help one make sense of their in box by applying taxonomy-parsing algorithms to the chaos we unleashed upon ourselves. I have yet to see any of these approaches work. Organizing one’s In Box has become the chief preoccupation of the digital age: effort masquerading as productive work.

Click to enlarge

Lastly, the resolution conversation follows a similar pattern by e-mail and as an outcome of collaborative innovation. Excitement about a concept leads to a desire to meet to plan next steps and enlist support. With e-mail the enquiry tends to be single threaded and, so, the meeting tends to center on resolving one idea—or theme—and not a set of related ideas contributed by a variety of people invited to participate in a collaborative innovation community. Likewise, e-mail-based collaboration tends to end abruptly. The parties on the copy list lose visibility into what the person who originated the idea plans to do next. In this sense, e-mail emulates the proverbial black hole.

Click to enlarge

Framing the Question

What might a benchmarking enquiry to the organization which encompasses the use of e-mail look like? You may want to ask the following questions, perhaps soliciting response by way of a Likert Scale that runs from completely disagree to completely agree. The link to the associated conversation appears in brackets.

  • I have one or two trusted colleagues within the organization with whom I share my initial thoughts and ideas before exposing them to a wider audience. [enquiry]
  • I share my initial thoughts and ideas with these colleagues by e-mail. [enquiry]
  • When I want to explore an idea further, I include people on the distribution list who can provide additional insight. [exploration]
  • I provide additional perspective on my ideas by attaching files to my e-mail to my colleagues. [exploration]
  • I send my colleagues updates on my progress by e-mail. [resolution]

Randomly sampling members of your organization to ask them more refined, robust versions of the above questions may help you to benchmark how far the practice of collaborative innovation has spread, relative to incumbent practices.

A Look into the Future

In February 2011 Atos SA, the largest information technology services firm in Europe, announced that they would stop using e-mail internally in three years. Their CEO observed that e-mail exacted too high a price on the productivity of their people. They have by way of an alternative invested heavily in social media capabilities to foster more compelling, effective forms of collaboration.

To my knowledge, eight months later Atos SA remains the only firm to have set this wonderfully disruptive course to transform their organization’s practices.

The rest of us who practice collaborative innovation outside ATOS SA must continue our work under less favorable conditions—one in which the Send button remains an ever-present, convenient alternative. To this end, making the effort to understand the organization’s use of e-mail to initiate enquiries, explore ideas, and resolve their pursuit can help us benchmark our progress.

Tellingly, Atos SA continues to offer Atos in A Box, a turnkey e-mail service for clients. Their selling this product seems akin to the local health department distributing Marlboros to the resident asthmatics.

We have a ways to go. In the interim, let’s more fully understand the reality of our situation.

About the Author: Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities. Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.