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Basecamp, E-mail and Projects
June 20, 2010 - 9:11pm

Will we ever get beyond e-mail as the main tool to manage our project communications? Everyone I know believes that e-mail is a terrible tool to keep track of all the tasks, to dos, milestones, decencies, and people related to projects. We are all overwhelmed by too much e-mail, and therefore likely to miss key communications related to our projects. E-mail makes it difficult to achieve a holistic view of the entire project process, forcing us to wade through numerous screens to see project communication. Nor does e-mail allow us to place project related messages with project related documents, links or materials.

E-mail for project management is also sub-optimal when it comes to communicating with all the people involved in the project. It is never clear who should be cc'd on project related messages. CC too few people and you run the risk of not being fully transparent. CC too many people and your project related communication will turn into project spam, crowding out critical messages to project members that require action.

The problems with e-mail for project management are widely known and widely agreed upon. And we have alternatives. Basecamp is a relatively easy to use and affordable cloud based project management platform. For a small investment in dollars, and little effort to go up learning curves, project documents, milestones, to dos, and messages can be captured in Basecamp. Maybe you have another online project management software platform that you can suggest? I've used AceProject in the past, and my brother suggests FogBugz. WikiPedia lists over 80 project management software products, with most of these available as online services.

So why is it that every new project that I've started in Basecamp eventually devolves into e-mail? Is this the case for you as well? Everyone agrees we should manage the project in Basecamp. We start putting all the documentation and messages in Basecamp. But at some point the volume of communication about the project starts to switch to e-mail, and overtime the number of messages related to the project that exist in e-mail dwarf anything in Basecamp.

Some ideas about why we always devolve to e-mail for projects:

1. Ubiquity: Everyone is on e-mail. It is a ubiquitous platform. Therefore, anyone who touches the project will also be on e-mail, a condition that does not always hold true for Basecamp. Once some people start to communicate through e-mail instead of Basecamp the tendency will be for most of the communication to migrate to the ubiquitous platform.

2. Unity: Nobody wants to use more system than they need to. We want a unified view for all of our work. If possible, we want to avoid switching between applications. Since we are already in e-mail our tendency will be to use the tool that we use everyday.

3. Communication: Projects are really about communication. Projects might have attributes (such as milestone, requirements, timetables etc.), but they depend on people to accomplish everything. E-mail is about communication, and no tool has supplanted e-mail for one-to-one and one-to-many communication. Asking ourselves to use one tool to communicate with some people, and another tool to communicate with different (or often the same people) about a project is simply not realistic.

I think for online project management platforms to work it will be necessary to have total integration with e-mail. Project management will need to occur from the e-mail application. The analogy is calendaring. We use calendaring systems that are built into our e-mail platforms as extensions. We go to e-mail to use Google Calendar or Exchange (Outlook) Calendars etc.

Does this exist? Has anyone built good project management tools (as good as Basecamp) that work from GMail or Exchange or Apple Mail or some other e-mail client? It would need to be Web-based, cross-platform, and simple. Looking forward to any advice.


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