Editor’s note: This story is part of our Microsoft-sponsored series on cutting-edge innovation. Alex Mermod is CEO of collaborative-email company Calinda Software.

There are a lot of great collaboration tools on the market, but they’re not catching on as well as many people thought they would. The problem is, most of us are just too comfortable using email to make a switch. Moving a whole decision-making team to a more powerful collaboration tool involves a learning curve and meetings, and there are always going to members in a team who just don’t want to make the switch. So e-mail continues to be used for 70% of all collaboration, according to an October 2009 Forrester study — even as people continue to complain about its inefficiencies and how they affect productivity.

The truth is, we’re not going to get to better collaboration by way of revolution. Not everyone’s ready to make the leap to a new tool at the same time. Instead, the change we’re going to see will be evolutionary. E-mail will evolve more collaborative elements. Users comfortable with those elements will use them; users who aren’t will follow more slowly.

My own company, Calinda, has been working to push email in this direction, as have other young companies like Threadbox and Liaise. The offerings vary, of course, but in general, we allow people to forward a regular email to our collaborative-email tools. Our tools then interpret the email as a decision or set of decisions that need to be made and render the email’s content in a collaborative format.

By “collaborative format”, what I mean is that, depending on the specific tool being used, each issue or question in the email may be broken out as a separate decision/discussion point; other collaborators may then be able to vote up or down (or somewhere in between) on particular issues; they may be able to open up sub-issues and track a conversation (or branch of a conversation) by viewing a visual map of it (pictured) rather than scrolling through a long string of emails; and all members of the decision-making group may have easy access to any attachments that have been sent during the course of the discussion.

The benefits are that all the discussion around a particular decision is easy to find and track. Participants in a discussion who get accidentally dropped from a thread — or new team members joining the discussion halfway through — have a central dashboard they can work from to get up to speed. And no one’s had to learn to use a new tool.

This breed of tools solves a number of the biggest problems you face when trying to use email for collaboration. You won’t lose emails or attachments, you’ll always know what the most current version of an attachment is, it’s easy to see which members of a group have responded and weighed in and which haven’t.

Several collaborative-email tools don’t just operate as standalone tools, but integrate with popular collaboration platforms. My company’s tool, MindUp, for example, integrates with Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration platform. So companies who’ve already invested in a collaboration platform can use these tools to allow groups to make the transition from email to collaboration platform as gradually as needed. And groups that don’t own a collaboration tool can use these collaborative-email technologies as full solutions.

It’s still early days for these tools, and they’ll continue to evolve as user behavior changes. So you can expect to see email’s collaborative qualities continue to stretch and mature over the next few years and really start to strengthen up the evolution to more collaborative tools.

So far, the early adopters of these tools have been R&D groups in the tech industry, IT groups (for managing purchasing and help desk conversations), and sales teams. And even within those groups, most users don’t have to change their conversational behavior until they see a clear benefit to doing so. Rather, only one person in the group (most likely the group leader) needs to change their behavior by beginning to forward their email to the tool. When others in the group want to retrieve attachments they’ve lost or get an overview of the conversation, they’ll eventually see the benefits and follow.

So we’re likely to see features like email integration, attachments, conversation visualizations, and simple voting catch on fastest. More advanced features — such as a report on the conclusion of a particular conversation (pictured below) — will take slightly longer to catch on. But, again, when users start to see the benefit of having a concluding report accompanied with all the supporting information that led to that decision (to reduce a customer’s bill due to unusual circumstances, for example), we’ll see uptake there, too. And eventually, we’ll start to see groups relying on tools like MindUp to alert them whenever decisions are finalized — for example, when changes to contracts are authorized or purchase orders are okayed.

But the real challenge to these collaborative-email tools going forward will be to continue to add sophistication while keeping the learning curve low for users. We must make it as natural as possible to have conversations, so integration with existing sources of conversations (i.e, email) is a must. When we integrate with collaboration platforms, we need features to guide decision makers through the masses of information and help them make decisions with data analysis. And we must be able to integrate with a business’s existing business applications, collaboration platforms and social networks to ensure the information is where it needs to be.

What do you think of email’s future? Take the poll below:

How long will email survive as a decision-making tool?customer surveys

Alex Mermod is CEO of Marseille, France-based Calinda Software. He was previously engineering director at Bee Ware, a manager at BMC Software, and an engineer at Sun Microsystems in Palo Alto. He originally had the original idea of visually mapping e-mail exchanges while working for Sun to solve the difficulties his fellow engineers were having by being overloaded with information and having no means to prioritize it.

To read more recent stories in this series, visit the Conversations on Innovation site, or click on one of the headlines below:
Overcoming information overload?
The subscription economy is here. Are you ready?
As new phones emerge, mobile app development is a moving target
A future of full of touchscreens? It’s all in the software
Cleantech’s next generation: smaller, nimbler, smarter
How JavaScript will lead the way to open video
TV 2.0: Hulu’s flatlining, and the networks are ready to innovate
What will it take to make mobile payments mainstream in the US?