Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Case for Non-Persistency

"Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."
-- Martin Lomasney, Massachusetts state senator

We have collaboration, we have enterprise file sharing, we have enterprise content management systems. It’s secure, efficient, and compliant. Yet, most collaboration is still done using email. Why is that? What does email have that all the collaborative software doesn’t?

What all these tools have in common is that they are persistent. The messages, comments, and documents that we create and share as part of collaboration are meant to remain preserved in the repository for a long time. And, for a good reason. They are part of the organizational body of knowledge, the corporate memory, that can be leveraged by the entire organization today and in the future. Often, there are also compliance reasons that stipulate persistency, sometimes even requiring us to turn all collaboration artifacts into formal records.

Photo: Flickr
But this persistency has a side effect. For one, employees often refuse to commit to bits the communication that they don’t want anyone to forward or discover. No, I don’t mean any politically incorrect jokes or some corporate sexting. I mean useful, productive communication in the form of feedback, opinions, advice, or critique that are often only shared in person. That’s why a lot of this communication either doesn’t happen at all or happens via SMS text messages and consumer instant messaging tools outside of IT control.

Another problem of persistency is vulnerability. That’s the benefit that Snapchat exploits so well when they say that delete is the default. Persistent information can be leaked or hacked. Information that has vanished because it was non-persistent, can’t. Many consumer companies have recently learned a tough lesson when their customer database has been hacked and the customer data has been leaked. If the data wasn’t persistently stored in the database, it wouldn’t have been leaked.

The other side effect of persistency is the added burden on employees. When you are saving a document in a repository where it may be shared with other people, you have to save it responsibly. Responsible collaboration means you have to think about where you save it, what you name it, decide with whom you share it, specify access permissions, assign metadata, add an expiration policy, and perhaps even classify it as a record. If you don’t do that, you are not collaborating responsibly because the organization won’t be able to get much benefit from what you are sharing.

Sure, some of those tasks can be automated and there is an entire industry trying to solve that problem. But some of the steps can’t be and that makes it a hassle. That’s why so many people just email the document to those they need to collaborate with right now. With email, we are free to collaborate irresponsibly -  we don’t need any of that metadata or policies, we don’t even have to name the document. All we need is just to click on Reply to All.

Email is not exactly non-persistent but it seems that way. Sure, some of us might be aware that the emails live on a server somewhere and some might even know that their IT department archives all emails for possible litigation and compliance purposes. But that’s only preventing us from engaging in irresponsible behavior, not in irresponsible collaboration.

There is one more burden that persistency creates. It creates clutter. The more sharing of documents and comments, the more clutter that is being created. If the collaboration artifacts remain persistent, the volume of documents, folders, messages, and comments just keeps growing and growing. Pretty soon the repository becomes difficult to navigate and nobody can find anything anymore. The corporate memory becomes a digital landfill, denying the organization the benefit of future reuse.

In fact, non-persistent collaboration is a gap in the collaboration market. We need a solution where a few people can quickly come together in an asynchronous way and just share, review, comment, and edit information. It could be a single document, a collection of images, or just an idea in the form of a sketch. After the collaboration is concluded, the initiator can decide whether the result should be moved to a persistent area or just leave it upon which it would vanish. The versions, comments, and messages would all vanish too.  The vanishing could be timed or immediate and it would always be the default behavior. Any move to persistence would have to be deliberate and it would notify all participants.

I am not aware of any commercial offerings providing non-persistent collaboration today but they might exist. I know that the US military has been using such a solution in the past, perhaps they still are. Obviously, the security aspects of non-persistency have a great appeal for a security sensitive organization like the military. I should probably also mention Snapchat again here. It is not exactly a commercial offering but it certainly has made a mark with its non-persistent messaging.

Would such non-persistent collaboration finally replace email? Maybe. Probably not. If I had a penny for every time someone declared email for dead… But it would address a gap in people’s needs. I know it goes against the grain of every corporate legal counsel and chief compliance officer but non-persistency would make us more productive.