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Workplace collaboration tools make their mark

Dispersed teams can now attest to workplace collaboration tools’ improved productivity. Here’s how collaboration technology will define the future of work.

The more people collaborate, the more productive they are. While this may sound like a broad generalization, most workers tend to produce more—and at higher quality—if they can exchange ideas, interact and collaborate on common work product.

Workers with diverse skills come together to work on a task—and given the right conditions, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. One necessary condition is that team members can trust and count on one another. A second necessary condition for successful collaboration is that team members have access to tools that allow them to communicate easily and quickly.

The fundamental value proposition of collaboration technologies is to enable workers to work from anywhere, on any device. But with an increasing number of companies hiring remote workers or working with third parties, videoconferencing has become a necessary tool.

The first step is messaging, but the true value comes once people begin to integrate conversations into business processes.

Alan Lepofsky, VP and principal analyst, Constellation Research Inc.

In so doing, they can share files with coworkers and edit them simultaneously, communicate in real time, and even interact in new digital environments that enable a closer, more immediate and truly interactive collaboration. They can share, present, brainstorm and co-create new products in the moment.

But just as much as collaboration technology can enable this seamless interplay of ideas and co-creation, it can also open the door to security breaches and a lack of productivity when the tools stall. So too, workers can be hesitant to sign on to yet another collaboration tool in their environment. Who wants 10 application windows open to complete a task?

So the question becomes, how close are collaboration technologies to enabling these kinds of seamless exc? Are they ready to bring value through real-time interaction, common platforms for work product, without creating information overload or glutting the network?

The increasing need for collaboration tools in the enterprise

CIOs can’t develop trust among team members in departments outside of IT—that’s an organic development. But they can identify the right workplace collaboration tools that engender communication and successful collaboration and enable productivity.

IT directors have two paradigms to choose digital tools in the marketplace today. The first is asynchronous communication, where two or more workers send one another messages as they are ready to communicate, and with no expectation of an immediate reply. This method of communication is exemplified by email.

The second paradigm is synchronous communication, where two or more people are engaged in a real-time exchange. When one person sends a message to another, he or she expects an immediate reply. Instant messaging (IM), phone conversations, or videoconferencing exemplify this communication method.

But these interactions differ vastly in how much they convey. After all, humans convey information not just through words but also through the speech rhythm, tone of voice, and body language. IM enables the transmission of only words, where phone conversations convey the rhythm of speech and tone of voice. Videoconferencing can go one better, providing the medium to transmit all four of the important aspects of human communication.

Business and IT leaders have to weigh the pros and cons of different kinds of communication. When team members are colocated, they see one another often enough such that simple text exchanges are enough when one is away from the office. But with an increasing number of companies hiring remote workers or working with third parties, videoconferencing has become a necessary tool to help establish relationships between team members, who may never even meet, but must still develop trust.

And even in companies that don’t allow telecommuting, employees from different company locations often work together as a team. Dispersing the workforce may even be a part of the organization’s strategy. After all, having a dispersed workforce offers important benefits:

  • Companies can draw from a wider pool of skilled workers rather than being retricted to talent in just one location.
  • Team members in different geographies live and breathe the market they live in—and that allows teams to develop a wider view of the global market.
  • Team members can be closer to customers, which is particularly beneficial for sales organizations.

But there is no doubt that geographic separation makes collaboration more complicated. Dispersed team members are less likely to develop the reflex to interact. Many people miss the camaraderie of office culture when they are remote, which makes it more difficult for team members to develop trust.

Fortunately, digital collaboration tools have evolved to a point where far-flung team members can interact productively. As companies like Volvo that employ workplace collaboration tools know, not only can they create a collaborative environment with geographically dispersed teams, but they can build better products, because you benefit from a richer skill set and a variety of market views from different geographies.

Enterprise adoption of workplace collaboration tools

G2 Crowd reports that more than half of all companies have already implemented team collaboration tools; and of those that haven’t, 31% plan to adopt one in the next two years. A major factor holding many companies back is that they can’t figure out which tools to standardize on.

Joe Held, former CIO of Reader’s Digest and Standard & Poor’s and current CIO of S&P Global, said that when CIOs begin to shop for workplace collaboration tools, they face two business models from vendors. “You have the giants in the consumer space, like Facebook and Twitter, who rely on advertising for their revenue,” Held explained. “Then you have the enterprise application vendors, who have added to their products the internal collaboration required by various businesses. This second model is subscription or license based, which is a very different business model,” he said.

“CIOs treat these two vendor approaches differently—not only because of the business model, but also because as CIO, you have to deal with security, privacy, and regulatory issues, and you can’t have advertisers creeping into your space. It presents governance and security challenges for CIOs.”

Cloud-based collaboration technologies can invite serious security and governance challenges. As companies enable workers to access data from any location, and on any device, they come to depend on cloud-based systems. But enterprises still need to ensure that this cloud-based content is secure.

Some IT directors do due diligence in selecting only cloud providers that guarantee the highest level of security. Others have chosen a hybrid approach, storing the most sensitive data on-premises, and less sensitive data in the cloud. Still others have taken a shorter view, opting to keep all enterprise content on-premises.

Companies striving to standardize on one or a few workplace collaboration tools might start by looking at what industry peers are doing. But IT directors should be aware of the traps inherent in this approach when an industry is in a state of disruption.

“In some niche markets, users take up a tool and that then becomes the de-facto standard for the market,” Held said. But in some cases, companies may bet on team collaboration tools that don’t survive market competition. “For example, in commodities, Yahoo Messenger became the standard. Then Yahoo stopped supporting Messenger, and the market had to find alternatives. They tried all sorts of products to fill the gap,” Held recalled. For the commodities market, the ability to record conversations is required for regulation, so Messenger’s disappearance was a challenge, compelling some companies to build custom solutions at the time.

But collaboration doesn’t stop with messaging; it involves several kinds of interactions. “At the highest level, many companies want to move to a more collaborative environment,” said Alan Lepofsky, VP and principal analyst at Constellation Research Inc. “The first step is messaging, but the true value comes once people begin to integrate conversations into business processes.”

“Some people want to move off of email to a more collaborative tool, thinking they’ll reduce the volume of messages. That’s the wrong way to look at it, as message volume is an irrelevant measurement. Instead, people should think about the change in impact and effectiveness of conversations.”

“The bigger advantage is seamless integration,” Lepofsky said. “Email, calendar, voice over IP, task management all become integrated. The average employee sees one interface and is oblivious to the names of the tools underneath.”

Underneath the user interface, a comprehensive collaboration toolset should include at minimum these functions:

  • Content synchronization, ensuring that modifications to documents are propagated to all appropriate repositories in a timely manner.
  • Search, allowing users can retrieve content across repositories using a set of intuitive keywords.
  • Collaborative editing, allowing two or more users to update the same file simultaneously.
  • Workflow, providing an engine to move content through the different stages of a business process.
  • Document retention, ensuring documents are stored for the amount of time required by regulation.
  • Videoconferencing, allowing dispersed teams to communicate in a fuller manner, and consequently develop a deeper sense of trust and camaraderie.
  • New, collaborative digital environments. Soon, though, collaboration tools will encompass the ability to create new digital environments that enable co-creation, such as virtual conference rooms or artificial reality (AR)-enabled environments for 3-D prototyping and more.

And collaboration is not just about buying a tool and expecting users to take a liking to it. “Just moving to a tool doesn’t solve the problem,” Lepofsky said. “You have to define the use cases. A move from email to [a collaboration tool] has to have a business purpose. It has to improve sales pipelines, support discussions on marketing campaigns, enable brainstorming on manufacturing process, or improve event planning—in other words, it has to improve a process. Otherwise, usage is just going to taper off.”

“You’ll find success where these tools are applied to specific activities. It’s a term I call purposeful collaboration.”

Enterprises that have successfully adopted workplace collaboration tools have acquired the tools to solve a specific problem—that has plagued users for some time. Some of the more common use cases for collaboration tools are the following:

  • Customer service, ensuring teamwork as different employees collaborate to help a customer.
  • Sales opportunity handling, allowing teams to work more effectively on a bid.
  • Product design and development, providing engineering teams with the tools they need to communicate quickly and often.
  • Project management, providing visibility on project status to team members.
  • Direct marketing, collecting feedback directly from customers.

CIOs should pay attention to the disruption in the marketplace. Large, established, “heavy” enterprise content management systems will encounter competition from smaller, simpler systems sold by newer companies. But during this process of disruption, CIOs have to perform a balancing act between exposing their organizations to security threats and opening a way in to shadow IT.

“There’s a lot of innovation, and a lot of interesting capabilities,” said veteran CIO and CTO Jonathan Miller. “But a lot of the innovation is coming in the form of small, point solutions. As a CIO, I worry about whether these tools can provide the security I need and whether some of these companies will be around in a few years.”

“The question for CIOs is how to deal with the proliferation of tools in the enterprise. On the one hand, such tools are easy to use and drive up employee productivity and satisfaction. On the other hand, without enterprise-grade security and governance, these tools can be a threat to data security, employee privacy, and business confidentiality. So, CIOs must walk a fine line between these two needs and find a compromise that serves both. Neither blocking such tools completely nor allowing them in unfettered is a viable option.”

The future of workplace collaboration tools

Enterprises have encountered only the tip of the iceberg in using digital technology to improve employee efficiency. The next generation of tools will provide still further improvements to employee efficiency, which is about helping people do things right. But these newer, smarter tools will have a much greater impact, by improving employee effectiveness, which is about helping people do the right things.

On its own, content can’t do the job of collaboration. What’s important is getting the right content to the right employee in the right context. To get this right, content solutions need metadata applied to the content and to the worker who needs the content.

Many vendors are aware of this problem and are working to solve it through artificial intelligence. “The challenge with search has always been having the correct metadata—and the challenge with metadata is that you can’t rely on people to tag things properly,” said Michael Fauscette, chief research officer at G2 Crowd. “So if you have an AI algorithm that correctly tags content 99% of the time, you can get much better at enterprise search.”

Fauscette believes that vendors will take AI further and that future workplace collaboration tools will include personal digital assistants, or bots, powered by AI algorithms. “AI will automate tasks that people either don’t do well or that people just find annoying,” Fauscette said. “You could build a bot that sets meeting schedules for you. The bot will know where you are, what you’re working on, which appointments you have, and which files you’ve touched. This context information will allow the tool work to make very appropriate suggestions on the content you need and the next steps you should take.”

In addition to helping with content and communication tasks, bots help with HR tasks. “A bot can evaluate your entire resource pool, match skills and availability, and then suggest the best people for a task. It can take into account a lot more factors than a resource manager ever could. It can even make predictions about the performance of team members.”

Just as consumer-oriented systems can now provide highly tailored recommendations for movies, music, and any other product or services to a given customer, enterprise systems will soon provide specific recommendations on content, next actions, and team members to suit a given employee in the context of his or her work activities.

As CIO, you have to deal with security, privacy, and regulatory issues.

Joe Held, CIO, S&P Global Platts

Constellation Research’s Lepofsky believes that vendors should build future technology in the workplace to inspire innovation. “Collaborative tools should help employees become more creative,” said Lepofsky. “Look at all the things we can do with our phones—take selfies, add filters, borders, text, and emoji. There are consumer tools that allow us to become amateur movie producers. What if that trend in the consumer space could make its way into the enterprise world, so that we can boost our creativity just as much at work?”

“VR [virtual reality] is still a future vision, but AR is absolutely here," Lepovsky continued. "We’re already seeing the ability for design teams to work together in AR to build products, for students to learn using 3-D models at scale, and for customers to see lifelike products, instead of just catalog images. AR frees people from the limitations of whiteboards and screen sharing, leading to a whole new level of collaboration.” That’s significant, because you can use the collaboration environment not only to document ideas but also to capture and manipulate them in real time.

Aside from the shiny new technologies, the future will also bring more practical improvements, resulting from more tightly integrated technologies that pressure hardware prices in a downward direction. Jonathan Miller predicts a convergence of voice, file sharing, video, and real-time document collaboration, likely through a web browser. “If everything my user is doing is browser based, the next logical step is to put them on a less expensive device. You might as well have a simpler device.”

And last but not least, according to Jonathan Miller, the future might finally give relief from the Monday morning email inbox. While Miller isn’t predicting that collaboration tools will deal a fatal blow to email, he foresees a crippling shot. “Email will become the letter writing of yesterday,” he said.

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Pat Brans

Affiliated professor at Grenoble École de Management, and author of the book Master the Moment: Fifty CEOs Teach You the Secrets of Time Management, Pat Brans writes and teaches about cutting-edge technology and the business surrounding technological innovation. Previously, Brans worked in high tech for 22 years, holding senior positions in three large organizations (Computer Sciences Corp., then-HP, and Sybase).