Talkwheel wants to reinvent the way we communicate online

We have email, we have message boards, we have IM, but if they aren’t integrated with one another, our collaborative communications often fall short. Andy McLoughlin, cofounder of Huddle, recently discussed the limitations of email as a collaboration tool. Virtual teams are finding email streams hard to track and harder to scale. IM conversations, while great in the moment, often disappear into the ether, not archived for future reference. And message boards are barely a step up from the Usenet Newsgroups of the early Internet.

So where do we go from here? Many of us who work with virtual teams have tried adopting collaboration and communication systems that are more fully integrated and where the conversations are archived and searchable. These tools combine email capabilities (receiving and sending emails that post into the system), message boards or forums where topic-specific conversations can take place, and in some cases, IM-like, or even Twitter-like, functions. These systems also often include document uploading, sharing and collaboration, task management, and project management tools. But none of the tools I’ve experimented with try to re-imagine the way we communicate online. Enter Talkwheel, which positions itself as an integrated communications tool for enterprises and offers a novel way to capture, visualize and follow conversations.

Rethink our collaborative communications

I have to be honest; it has taken me a long time to “get” Talkwheel, and even though now I “get it,” it still doesn’t appeal to me. But it does present an interesting way of rethinking how we communicate and collaborate and what happens to our conversations in different places that are inter-related but not inter-linked.

Talkwheel’s premise is that if you install and use the platform with your team, all of the conversations you have — both in real-time and asynchronously — will be captured and organized in a way that lets you visualize them. You can form Talkwheel Groups to bring together specific groupings of people with whom you are communicating, such as a group for a specific project or a group for a particular department. When you bring people into a group, they are set up with Talkwheel accounts (you can also use Facebook to bring in your Facebook friends) and any subsequent messaging amongst group members will show up in several ways: as threaded and nested messages on the right side of the interface, and around the “talkwheel” on the left.

The wheel is meant to represent a round table, while the people in the group are represented by their icons around the wheel. Each person’s comments are symbolized by color-colored dots and the connections between the comments are illustrated as lines connecting those dots. As a very visual thinker, I want to fall in love with that wheel, but it really falls flat for me and feels unnecessary. Part of this feeling may be coming from the fairly primitive interface; it feels like somebody’s hand-drawn image of what they’d like this platform to become, rather than an elegant user interface that illustrates the idea of a “conversation wheel.”

Harness disparate conversations

Despite the shortcomings in user experience, the premise of Talkwheel is an interesting one: Bringing the different ways we are communicating into a single platform so conversations aren’t lost, and connections between conversations are made and are more explicit. But, despite its novel visual interface, Talkwheel isn’t the first to tackle this communications challenge and is up against social business tools YammerSalesforce Chatter (s crm) and Socialtext, collaboration platforms like Glasscubes and Huddle, and perhaps even the new “Circles” feature in Google+ (s goog).

What is more exciting about Talkwheel, however, are the analytical tools the company is rolling out. Right now, you can measure Sentiment of conversations. In the same way that you might want to know the positive, negative and neutral sentiments of conversations taking place on blogs, social networks and the like, Talkwheel lets you measure the sentiment of your internal and external team conversations. As more and more virtual teams form and subtle cues of in-person conversation are lost, being able to “take the emotional temperature” of a group conversation will have a lot of value for the manager of virtual teams.

Even though we are all in the habit of flitting between our emails, which may or may not e integrated with our collaboration tools and then our IMs and then message boards, we probably know deep down inside that this isn’t efficient; we’re just used to doing it. Talkwheel offers a solution, but it’s only a matter of time before we know if any of us are willing to break our bad communications habit and get a better grip on our collaborative conversations.

How are you harnessing your emails, IMs and message board posts as you collaborate with your team?