The digital collaboration industry continues to flourish

Far from maturing, the collaboration tool space is busier than ever evolving, branching out, and multiplying. But are organizations able to adopt so many different ways of working together?

The industry of digital collaboration, once one of the more-staid and less exciting parts of the technology world, has experienced quite the renaissance over the last decade or so. This started roughly when enterprise social collaboration, in all its many forms, first arrived. Since then there have been at least two "Cambrian explosions" as innovators continue to take collaboration in almost any direction that you can conceive.

As a result, I'm still asked pretty regularly if today's collaboration tools -- enterprise social networks or today's feature-packed collaboration suites -- have entered maturity yet. One key reason the question is asked so often is to determine if the collaboration space has 'found its way' yet. That is, whether the current generation of platforms is now worth it for an organization to invest heavily in, given that things have settled down and the resultant winning approaches and leading players having emerged.

The answer to the maturity question is therefore somewhat unsatisfying: It is basically yes, if you don't care that much about getting all you can out of digital collaboration, and no, if you do.

451 Research Social Business Applications Market 2014-2019

But from what I can see, that's not really the right question that IT or business leaders should be asking today. One issue is that it's now pretty clear that the collaboration space is continuing to grow and improve more than ever now, so certainly industry maturity is not to be had. To underscore this, a new report by 451 Research claims that social business applications will continue to grow 22% yearly to be a $37 billion industry by 2019.

At the same time, it's also true that the top enterprise collaboration platforms have essentially settled into the usual suspects: SharePoint, IBM Connections, Jive, and few other top players. The remainder of the market is divided up amongst literally dozens of other players. So there is stability in the market share leaders if you want it, and choice if you prefer that.

However, this state of affairs belies a couple of vital factors that most collaboration efforts ignore at their peril. The first, as I recently noted, is that the actual process of collaboration is an entirely human activity that comes in many forms. Technology is only a conduit, container, and enabler of the process. The second is that there is no one best model of collaboration for all the work than an organization does together in groups. That is, there's no one-sized fits all collaboration tool or approach that provides the optimal results, even for the most common scenarios.

In other words, collaboration is first about people and then right tools for the job.

Dimensions of Human Activities and Technologies in Enterprise Collaboration

A strategic focus: Enabling knowledge workers

The problem with there being no single best model for digital collaboration, is that teamwork is perhaps one of the most differentiating and strategically vital aspects of knowledge work. As many businesses realize, it's their knowledge workers that typically carry out most of the so-called strategic 'value creation' in the majority of organizations. This collaborative work almost always involves many actors in a complex and unique ballet. These activities are the ones that matter most to the business, from designing new products and services, to engaging in sales and partnerships, or exploring ways to operate the company more effectively and efficiently. It is these types of activities that we want most to improve as much as we can.

The underlying motivation here -- and which is a reality for organizations that realize it -- is that with the right collaboration tools and techniques for their knowledge workers, companies can forge truly valuable new capabilities and advantages that their competitors cannot easily duplicate.

This strongly suggests that one-sized fits all approach to collaboration is the short path to becoming a middle-of-the-road organization. High performing companies, as Bill Pieroni, the COO of insurance industry giant Marsh recently pointed out, must get the most out of an increasingly scarce pool of knowledge workers to stay ahead. Therefore collaboration tools that can more effectively help knowledge workers reach their full potential -- in terms of both business innovation and employee engagement -- are of great interest to corporate leaders.

That is, if there was a way of managing the associated cost of maintenance, fragmentation of work, and functional duplication of having several overlapping collaboration tools or techniques that do their job the best for a particular high value scenario. The operational pain of having the "right tool for the job" is in fact the specific issue set that makes CIOs seek simple, broad collaboration platforms that will do the job well enough for most workers.

This then helps us pose what's probably the better question about workforce collaboration in today's operating environment: "What's the best set of new collaboration tools and techniques I can apply today that balances maximum value creation with overall manageability?"

Why IT pushes back on the best new tools

In general, companies don't like doing things over and over until their right, even if they're important, like collaboration. They'd much rather have the ease, certainty, and low-cost of a win the first time out of the gate, even if that means waiting until the timing is right. Frequent technology updates can be expensive and disruptive.

But as we've long learned with agile processes and the enterprise, if you really want the best results, you need to keep taking what you've learned and doubling down until the cost of improvement is more than the value of the gain you'll get on doing it better.

This then seems to explain why there are still so many collaboration approaches still entering the market: a) The technology enablement of collaboration can come in so many forms and b) each one can potentially provide significant business value if applied in the right high leverage use cases within the organization.

A conversation I had today with Sameer Patel, head of collaboration platform SAP Jam, today only confirms this: Collaborative co-existence is a leading mantra from leaders of large companies. Don't let the tool overlap and/or sit in a collaborative silo; there is significant urgency to make our collaboration tools work together and with other IT systems. However, it's increasingly up to vendors to make this happen, as there is falling interest in IT departments maintaining the the growing points of integration.

This also explains the tremendous excitement in leading new collaboration platforms like Slack, which puts the application integration burden on the vendor, much as SAP tends to do with Jam.

Emerging Candidate Models for Digital Collaboration

The emerging edge of digital collaboration

This leads us back to the crux of the issue: Instead of settling down, the collaboration software space is actually get more interesting and varied now. I'm seeing new technologies, such as applications that focus on optimizing collaboration for mobile devices or for team analytics. I'm also seeing new ways of thinking about the human aspect of collaboration, such as a focus on team commitments (Alynd), multidimensional collaboration (Conteneo), visual group ideation (Murally), process centric-collaboration (Metaphor), and even rethinking private business collaboration (Confide for Business.) These collectively represent iportant advances that can enable many new kind of opportunities within organizations, if we're prepared to use them.

To help understand what's possible, I will explore these new ways of collaborating using technology in more detail soon, with an eye towards how they help specifically with bottom-line value creation in our organizations, in an upcoming round-up. In the meantime, it's now time for organizations to design a strong foundation for digital collaboration, as the near future promises many key new innovations that must be considered and incorporated to stay competitive, both to customers and the workforce.

Additional Reading

How digital collaboration with evolve in 2015

Watching digital collaboration evolve: Key events in the last year

How social business grew up

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