Saturday, May 20, 2006

Distribution Lists and Mail Archive: Communication at Work

Significant amount of my time in office is spent reading thru e-mails in my inbox. And most of them weren't meant for me and/or don't require any action from me. This must be the problem with anyone working on a product development involving multiple teams in different poles of the earth and having various different activities going on at the same time. Also, what we follow is "extreme" Agile development model. Communication is the key for this to work successfully.

I'm thinking about suggesting some changes to the way we operate such that it will result in lesser communication overhead and greater productivity.

Today, we have multiple distribution lists catering to the communication requirements of each teams and each life-cycle product we are working on. These are not mailing lists. These are just a bunch of e-mail ids tied together by an alias in MS Exchange. Sender sends the e-mail and all the recipients get it in their inbox. Everyday morning I have atleast 30 e-mails just from these distribution lists. On any given day, there will be atleast 10 - 20 threads active. I might be interested in just a few of them. Rest of the threads I may need them in future. Some I may never need. Who knows? So, I keep them all in my inbox. After a while the pst file grows so big in size, the outlook software becomes very slow in retreiving e-mails. Also, it takes quite a big chunk of my e-mail time in organizing, classifying these e-mails into different pst folders.

The solution I'll propose should remedy all of the above shortcomings of the existing system.

We would eventually like to move to a setup that is combination of wiki and blog. For any kind of communication that requires immediate action or becomes irrelevant after sometime, a blog with threaded comments system with RSS/Atom syndication would be the best. It will change the push model of communication which is e-mail to pull model of communication. It also gets archived automatically. This historical data collection will help do post-mortem better at the end of the program. Wiki can be used to capture knowledge that has better shelf life and also evolves over time. Like design discussions and spec'ing a new feature. All the meeting minutes can be captured in a blog with a link to the updated page on a wiki. Ofcourse, we have standard design discussion/meeting minutes capturing templates used to capture these artifacts in our quality system which is very formal. The wiki and blog will enable the day-to-day informal communication.

But like I said earlier, we would "eventually" move to this system. For now, we need a transitional setup, a web archive for the existing distribution lists. People will stop archiving it in their PST files. If they want to access older mails, search for them, they will access this web archive. So, the question is, what is the best setup for a web archive that supports MIME and looks good and has search integrated and can show threaded converations?

One that comes to mind immediately is MHonArc. But the default setting didn't look good.

Any suggestions?

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