The uniqueness of e-mail discussion forums
Using the metaphor of newspapers, with large numbers of articles written by the readers themselves, puts e-mail discussion forums and news groups into perspective. They are valuable sources of information but the signal to noise ratio is low and the volume of messages too high to be able to read all posts and take part in all discussions.
Despite these limitations, they have value in five ways:
1) Skipping through the subject headlines would discover others with similar interests and perhaps reveal different approaches to the same problems.
2) Randomly selecting a few posts to read would provide opportunities for thoughts and ideas to present themselves that would not normally have been considered.
3) As a source of assistance in problem solving.
4) As a means of checking on the validity of current plans and ideas.
5) As a source of valuable contacts
The first and second values are obtained passively. They simply require time to read through posts. The last three values can only be realised through active participation. It is the nature of this participation that is of special interest because there is no parallel to these Internet discussion forums in the conventional business world. They represent an unique opportunity to use communication strategies that have never been possible before the Internet came into being.
Internet discussion forums are special, they are unlike any meeting or discussion forums in the world of bricks and mortar. There are similarities with real life meetings, but, real life meetings have to be held in real time - where no more than one speaker can speak at a time and where the speakers compete with each other for speaking time rather than attention. Emphasis is on putting across views to influence or educate others rather than providing an environment where each person can be concerned only with their own cognitive models.
In a real time meeting, people haven't the opportunity to choose from a number of concurrent different view points, People aren't able to centre the discussion around their own particular interests. But, this is possible in Internet discussion groups, where all participants can discuss different things at the same time without conflict or confusion.
A comparison can be made with a technical conference. At these conferences there is usually only one speaker giving a presentation at a time. Everyone has to listen to that speaker and even if there is a question and answer session the speaker is at the centre of attention and the questions asked one at a time. If everyone got up at the same time to ask questions, or started to explain their particular problems there would be chaos. Especially if the audience started answering each other's questions or putting questions to each other. Yet, such a situation is possible in an e-mail discussion forum and its doesn't create confusion and chaos.
Similarly, some conferences may have several rooms, occupied by different speakers: giving audiences a choice of different speakers to listen to. It is not possible for anyone to be in all the different rooms at the same time. Yet, in effect, this is what can be done in e-mail discussion forums. Imagine being in two discussion meetings at the same time and a point comes up in one which may best be answered by another group in another meeting. Switching questions across groups isn't possible in real time but it is easily done with e-mail discussions. A point can come up in one forum and without leaving the discussion that point can be taken across to a completely different forum to be discussed simultaneously in a different context - maybe coming back to the original forum new information to add to the discussion.
The ability for any individual to move an idea around to different discussion forums is a powerful way to develop ideas. This technique would be useful for entrepreneurs who could check out or add to the ideas of the auteurs they had hired. It could be used by auteurs to investigate different possible e-business solutions. It can be used by experts or specialist to enhance their own capabilities and knowledge. It can even be used by members of a conventional managed team to increase their input into a cooperative project. A diagram to illustrate this principle is shown in figure 15.5.
Any individual can obtain ideas from email discussion forums, then refine the ideas by introducing them into other forums to get further inputs and perspectives. An idea developed in this way can then be presented to a local group in the world of bricks and mortar.
It takes some while to adjust to the idea of participating in several discussions simultaneously, but, it can be visualised in terms of the newspaper metaphor where a reader can take a point from one letter in a newspaper then write a letter to another newspaper to raise the point there. In light of the reader responses to this letter, the idea can be refined and rewritten as a new letter and sent to yet another newspaper to invite further comment. In this way, any subscriber to any newspaper can arrange to be at the centre of a discussion that spans several discussion groups - with the combination of discussions being focused on their own particular problems and cognitive models.
This is what the collaborative model allows. Everyone can take an initiate or take part in discussions and at the same time be in full control to be able to filter out just the messages that are applicable to them. Imagine trying to do this in a real time discussion group, with everyone trying to focus attention on their personal problems? Imagine trying to do this simultaneously in several real life meetings that are occurring at the same time?
People often try to compare the benefits of real time chat and tele-conferencing with that of e-mail discussion forums. But, there can be no comparison . They are completely different animals. Real time chat and tele-conferencing suffer from the same limitations of face to face meetings in as much as the discussions are limited to one speaker at a time and the speakers have to share and compete for the same available time.
Real life, face to face meetings and tele-conferencing do have the advantage that there are not the problems associated with information overload - there is no need for individuals to devise strategies to cope with signal to noise ratio problems. But, this is why e-mail communication is so different: it's value is highly dependent upon the filtering strategy used by the participants.
For anyone to be able to be able to compete successfully in the world of e-business, it is imperative that they adopt a suitable personal strategy to be able to efficiently extract information from the Internet environment. An important element in such a strategy will be in making appropriate personal use of e-mail discussion forums.