Going Back to (Collaboration) Basics

As digital workers, we spend a lot of time collaborating online. TalentCulture has previously featured several articles by the great Jeff Wilfong and Chris Jones highlighting some of the high-level processes and theories that dictate successful collaboration. Now, it’s time to get back to the basics.

This is part one of a two-part series on the basics of online collaboration, and the everyday tools we overlook or misuse.

1. Apply Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques to email.

The Problem: Many email programs have evolved beyond simple send-and-receive features of the mid-ninties. Now, without realizing it, many of us are using our inboxes for data storage. The problems occur when we want to find information from last week, month or year. We use the search functions to rummage through old emails and attachments and spend what amounts to hours of our workweek simply searching for information we’ve already read.

The Solution: Understand the basic concepts behind search engine optimization and how those apply to the way we use email. I once received an email from my father containing an attachment with important information about eye doctors approved by our health insurance plan. The subject of the email was “here it is;” the body read “here you go,” and the attachment document title was a series of numbers. How I was supposed to find that email when I really needed it to call a doctor during business hours is beyond me. The simple solution is to fill out the subject and body of your emails with keyword-rich content. When writing an email, always ask yourself, “Does this email contain information the recipient(s) will need later? If so, how can I write this email so that it shows up when they search their inbox?”

2. Save your Microsoft Office files in the more common .DOC  and .PPT formats.

The Problem: We waste so much time and frustration dealing with the ramifications of Microsoft’s attempt to force its “customers” to buy the latest software. When Office 2007 was released for Windows, it introduced the new default file format .docx that could not be opened by previous versions of Microsoft Word. The same problems arose with .pptx formats, the new PowerPoint default and .xlsx files, the new Excel format.

The Solution: If everyone saved everything as .doc and .ppt files, the world would be a safer, happier place. Unfortunately, we don’t live in digital paradise. Just remember that since new versions of Microsoft Office are backwards compatible, saving files as .doc and .ppt is always the safest bet. However, you can’t expect your colleagues, clients, and classmates to be as tech-savvy as you are, TalentCulture reader. Download a solid file converter to save yourself the stress. (Note, however, that file conversions aren’t foolproof so if you need to share files, you still need to be mindful of this suggestion.)

3. When initiating or replying to a group email, put careful thought into who needs to be included in the to: and cc: lists.

The Problem: The single biggest flaw with email is that its cc and reply-all features are used for online collaboration. One classmate of mine was working on a group project that sparked an email chain of over 100 messages. She was not using an email client that organized that chain into a single conversation, so when we checked her email, her entire inbox was full of emails all with the same title.

At the other end of the spectrum, how many of us have waited for a reply to an email from someone who we (days later) realize was never cc’d on the original reply? I know I have.

The Solution: Think carefully about who needs to be cc’d on an email chain and who does not. Email is not the best tool for online collaboration, so if possible, it’s best to take longer and more complicated group-focused issues off of email and into a meeting of conference call. That saves everyone the time of clarifying what he or she means in text-only form.

*Google has made a thus far failed attempt at solving issues surrounding Reply All and CC misuse with Google Wave. You can always give that a try in your online collaboration needs since it’s open to the public now.

Keep an eye out for part two of this series next week!

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