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Dyson's Meta-Mail: merging email with business processes

Posted by johnreynolds on July 20, 2004 at 2:43 AM PDT

While browsing the news feeds I came across an interesting article by Esther Dyson on the topic of "Meta-Mail". Perhaps I had heard something about this concept before, but the one advantage of my mid-life-memory is the thrill of discovering new ideas each and every day... but I digress... "Meta-Mail" is Dyson's term for melding business processes and email.

Simply put, email needs structure. Without structure there is not much that can be done to categorize email beyond the results of text searches. In Dyson's words:

"Text search can catch topics (or nouns, what something's about), but it can't catch the implicit 'transactions' (or verbs, such as commitments, deadlines and decisions)."

This begs for a real example from my exciting life:

  • One of our consultants (Srikanth) discovers that he cannot file a support incident with a vendor. Our service contract has lapsed, and he is stuck.
  • Srikanth sends me (John) email, asking me to get the service contract renewed. He is stuck, so he marks the email as "urgent".
  • My inbox is relatively empty, so I actually read the email (within an hour or so).
  • I reply to Srikanth, and forward the email to my boss (Sam).
  • Sam replies to me, and directs a request to the head of the group that "owns" our contract with the vendor (Amy).
  • Amy sends email to the team member who works regularly with the vendor (Mary).
  • Mary sends email to the vendor.
  • The vendor replies to Mary with terms for renewal.
  • Mary forwards the terms to Amy for purchase approval.
  • Amy approves the purchase, and emails our purchasing department (to issue a purchase order).
  • Our purchasing department issues the PO to the vendor.
  • The vendor emails Mary the new support keys.
  • Mary emails Amy, Sam, John, and Srikanth the new support keys.
  • Srikanth uses the keys to file the support incident.

I've actually left out a few steps here, and I've fudged the outcome. We're still waiting for terms on renewing the support contract (it's been a couple of weeks so far).

The point of this example is that a business process is being conducted via email. Each message is a step within our ad-hoc "renew a support contract" process. I am certainly not bragging about the details of our process, but it should seem pretty familiar (and pretty scary). Each email is distinct and unrelated to the others except for the likely inclusion of the email thread within the body of the message. There is no easy way to track the progress of the process (except to send follow-up emails), and it doesn't take much for the process to stall.

Dyson's solution is to identify messages as process steps by embedding meta-data within the email. Meta-data can add meaning to email, and this meaning can be used "to look for and manage processes, activities, transaction threads and the like by what often matters most: links between events and activities, timing, state of doneness or dueness, attributes that have to do with the state of interactions among objects and people."

The "killer-app" that will enable all of this has yet to appear (Dyson calls this application "Visi-Process", and homage to the first successful spreadsheet "Visi-Calc"), but many are working towards this goal (IBM's Remail, OSAF's Chandler, etc.). Personally, I doubt that a "closed" application suite will do the trick. Process meta-data must be standardized to work across a wide variety of tools, or it won't really make much of a dent in the way we work.

Pretty cool stuff.

Update:
Thanks to a reader for a link to Roundup, an Open-Source tool that incorporates some of the concepts of meta-mail.

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