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So many collaboration tools, so little time

By Angela Ashenden posted 04-25-2016 07:51


What collaboration technology is used within your organisation?


It's highly unlikely that you will be able to answer this question with just one word. "Collaboration" means so many different things to different people, and as a result most of us use several - or even many - different collaborative tools in our business lives, depending on the work we are doing, who we are working with, and where we - and our colleagues - are working from. And once you extrapolate that out across an entire organisation, it becomes a very complicated picture.

The most obvious collaboration technology is perhaps email - but others include real-time communications tools such as instant messaging, audio and video conferencing, and new messaging tools like Slack. There are also a plethora of document collaboration options, including document management tools, file sharing tools, and co-authoring or co-editing tools. And there are many others too - for example online meeting tools, intranets, social collaboration / enterprise social networking tools, project management tools - not forgetting the business applications that incorporate collaborative features, such as your CRM , ERP or Finance system. The list goes on…

The implications of this type of diverse environment is that it can be hard for us as users - deciding which tool to use in which situation; constantly being presented with new tools to get our heads around; getting frustrated because colleagues or team members are using different tools to us and we're never quite sure we (and they) have access to the most current and accurate information we need to work efficiently. It's also frequently a major headache for the IT organisation; firstly because often they are unaware of the full extent of the different tools that are being used throughout the organisation, and the consequences of potentially insecure or inappropriately managed technologies getting traction; and secondly because - despite this - IT is often expected to provide support for the various tools that people are using. This has considerable implications both in terms of the cost of providing such support - for example skilling up staff across such a breadth of tools, and also resourcing the support efforts - and also in terms of managing relationships with a large number of vendors.

The challenge is that there is not an easy solution to this problem; while there may be some scope for reducing the number of technologies in play, this will often be limited to where there are true duplicates in use, for example two instant messaging platforms or two social networking platforms. For the remainder, the issue is that different tools are typically employed to support different use cases - either through different types of collaboration (for example real-time discussions in the context of a project vs. collaboratively authoring a document) or through their relevance in a particular context (for example enabling the sales team to collaborate around their accounts and opportunities vs. enabling the engineering team to share information around a product development process). Another issue is that the tool that an individual uses for a particular situation may be entirely out of their (or the organisation's) control, for example if a partner organisation requires them to use a particular tool as part of a shared project.

I know many organisations try to standardise on just a small handful of collaboration technologies - or standardise on the products from just a few vendors - and while I completely understand the reasoning behind this, the truth is that it rarely works in the long-term. The rate of innovation in the collaboration space means that new and interesting technologies are constantly emerging - and disrupting - all the time, and - quite simply - if your employees find a tool that meets their needs better than the ones you have standardised upon, today's cloud-based and freemium models mean that they can - and will - use them to get their work done.

The reality is that IT organisations need to be pragmatic in dealing with the proliferation of collaboration tools that are popping up across our organisations, because this is the new normal. Clearly it is a complex issue which will have different implications for different organisations, but I have two pieces of advice for IT to bear in mind in handling this:

  1. Embrace the peer network. Your IT organisation can't be everything to everyone, so let your employees support each other through a combination of self-service and peer-based support for whichever collaboration tools. Take advantage of some of those collaboration tools to allow early adopters and enthusiasts to answer the bulk of the "how do I" questions, empowering those who are ready to share their knowledge, and taking the pressure off your IT resources.

  2. Integrate and connect wherever you can. If you can't reduce the number of tools that are being used, tying them together is the next best thing, to overcome the risk of new siloes of collaboration counteracting many of the benefits that collaboration tools aim to overcome. If you can allow employees to use their collaboration tool of choice while still allowing the conversation to be open and inclusive, this creates the best of both worlds. In practice, vendors' support for integration with other collaboration tools (both competitive and complementary) is mixed, but it is improving, particularly among the cloud-based vendors in the market.

Is this an issue your organisation has grappled with? I'd love to hear your experiences!

#socialcollaboration #Collaboration


04-27-2016 05:28

Thanks Bhuti - that's a very fair point, and a good approach I think. Another side to this is the exit/migration path of course; recognising from the outset that this tool that we are standardising on is our best choice right now, but at some point in the future this will more than likely need to change, and therefore what will we need to be able to do at that point? Do we need to be able to get our data out to migrate it, and what support does the tool provide to enable that? It's something that vendors aren't typically very open about (for obvious reasons), but it should play a bigger role in technology selection.

04-27-2016 05:19

Great article Angela, I totally agree with you and you raise two most important points here, embracing the change and integration. I believe it all lies in those two ideas.
I would still believe that an organization though has to have at least a standard, something that we can say it is our standard if other department comes up with something different try and understand it maybe integrate it to our standard.
I think the big failure for most organization is that there is no standard so anything goes which then results in everyone not really buying in in whatever you are bringing on. So for me I would say as an organization, standardize to one or two tools but then allow innovation where people can come up with something new and look at integrating that to your standard tools.