Digital collaboration goes deeper, gets lightweight and intelligent

Two tracks seem to be emerging with today's enterprise collaboration tools. Either they're becoming full-sized suites with the kitchen sink, or they're focusing making a few core features work better than anyone else.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

The good news is that enterprises today -- large and small -- have more choice than ever before when it comes to digital tools to make collaboration more effective and productive. But that same blessing is also a curse when it comes down actually taking advantage of them.

With new collaborative workforce technologies can come inaccessible silos of information, fragmentation of engagement, loss of control, difficulty of management, along with a wealth of privacy and security concerns. Fortunately for now, the potential downsides seem to be eclipsed by the possibilities and benefits.

For one, it's increasingly clear that workforce collaboration has entered a kind of Renaissance era, where new modes of collaboration and myriad related innovations are emerging rapidly -- see my "Cambrian Explosion" diagram below. These innovations can provide powerful new capabilities from the team level all the way up to vast communities that involve large groups of mass participants across many organizations.

Ironically, given that the workforce is the single biggest investment that most companies make, actual investment in collaboration tools remains as spotty as ever, with companies often spending millions on document management and unified communication on one hand, while frequently investing in a much more limited way in file sync/sharing or enterprise social networks. Even more challenging, collaboration is still considered a "figure it out yourself" process in most organizations, with limited planning and little training in either better ways of collaborating or education on the technologies themselves.

The Evolution of Digital Social Mobile Collaboration Technology for the Enterprise

While many of the new so-called consumer-style enterprise apps for collaboration are putting the user experience near the top of the checklist, this has also led to a more laissez-faire approach to situating the tools in the enterprise in recent years, with many assuming that workers will largely be able to figure them out and apply them on their own. The jury is still out if a more consumerized approach to deployment of new collaborative technology is the best route, but the often low levels of usage seems to urge more upfront planning and preparation to maximize their impact.

But part of the problem might just be one of pure choice. Workers today have more tools for interacting and engaging with each other than at any time in the history of business. Not only can this lead to analysis paralysis ("which is the right tool to use for this task?"), but certainly the seemingly transient nature of and constant change in available toolkits can make it less likely that workers will spend precious time and effort learning new ways of working.

A Key Challenge: The Many Options for Collaboration

On the other hand, it's also much more likely that the right collaborative tool for the job at hand is available. Need a way of connecting with thousands of business partners? Use an online community. Need a way of giving everyone easy access to a set of project files? Use a document management system or file sync service. Need a way of connecting a company together as a group to align together and work dynamically? Employ an enterprise social network.

The progression of improved collaborative tools has recently led us to some interesting places, and further I believe it is about to take us to some interesting new ones. Certainly, most organizations have gone far beyond the initial early days of computer networks, file servers, teleconferences, and e-mails. Though these are still used, we've discovered many new -- and often more specialized -- ways of collaborating. The 1990s brought Groupware to the fore for the first time, even though the idea had come about many years before to focus on people just as much as technology when it comes to collaboration. Online communities began to form regularly then as well, especially in the technology world, but other industries as well.

Most of us are readily familiar with the social media revolution of the 2000s and how it led to Enterprise 2.0 and subsequently the much more transformative story of social business. Now the emphasis is on mobile devices for collaboration as well as analytics to give us insight into and business intelligence about the mountain of visible data that today's much more open and participative collaboration environments have given us.

The progression has been pretty clear: More and more focus is now on people and activating the resulting information within collaborative systems, while providing more and easier access, (also creating the aforementioned issues around fragmentation and data security.) And that's what brings us to where we seem to be today. With a genuine wealth of choice, but ones that are seemingly more ephemeral at times despite being aligned with key trends I'll explore in a moment.

The pace of innovation in digital collaboration itself appears to remain unabated. The number of e-mails I get about new collaborative tools for the enterprise even today is astonishing. While I will share a list of the most promising ones here soon, there is no let up in sight, even though most of these products will not succeed. In reality, most companies will end up choosing relatively mature offerings, from a short list of each of the types of tools outlined in the main figure above. These include file sync and sharing, content/document management, chat, SMS, instant messaging, teleconferencing (including voice, video, and Web), legacy groupware, wikis, blogs, enterprise social networks, and some specialty outlier tools.

While there are not many collaborative channels today that are in actual decline -- most of them are in fact growing steadily -- one of the few of them is voice conversation, which is holding steady or going into steady decline, depending on whose numbers you use. Even relatively stodgy areas like document management are expected to see yearly double-digit growth for the next few years, as small and mid-size companies catch the wave. The same with the growth of unified communication market through 2016. The implication here is that companies must provide support for all the types of collaboration tools/channels shown above, and try to get most out of them.

Workforce Collaboration Innovations in the 20th and 21st Centuries: E-mail, Internet, DMS, Groupware, Online Community, Wikis and Blogs, Social Networks, Mobile, Analytics, Intelligence

Tool Trends: Suites, Unification, Light Weight, and Intelligence

In fact, if there seems to be a broader overall trend, it's in how collaborative tools are packaged and delivered. Most new collaborative solutions are now built as cloud-first services using newer developer technologies. This is driving a one-sized-fits-all focus on one end of the spectrum. Services like Dropbox and Box add new features all the time, trying to ensure they have enough of the right functionality to draw in businesses, making them nearly as bloated these days as some of their on-premise enterprise brethren. So too are less well known specialty collaboration services like shared whiteboarding service Twiddla or the all-in-one intranet platform, Bitrix, both of which try to do as much as possible in an integrated fashion.

On the other end of the spectrum are new tools that often seem ridiculously lightweight for business use, such Feedbag.io or enterprise microblogging services like Yammer, the latter which has actually managed to stay very simple over the years, and is the better for it, in my opinion.

So the fork in the road for organizations today seems to be deciding on a full-sized collaborative suite that has the kitchen sink, or a collection of less-connected lightweight collaboration tools that are really, really good at just one or two functions, but can be mixed and matched for optimum results.

Finally, while mobile support and analytics are now hot topics with collaboration, the next big steps seems to be in gaining deep insight into the large repositories of knowledge that good collaboration leaves behind. This might mean analysis of the work taking place inside collaborative tools, with tools like SYNAPP. But, as Constellation analyst Alan Lepovsky recently observed to me and I've had CIOs tell me on several occasions, the real play is the ability to peer deeply using machine learning into this collective intelligence to make better decisions based on ground truth that comes from what the organization as a whole actually knows. Essentially, it's applying IBM's Watson-style machine learning to the full collaborative output of your organization.

Related: As IT's industrial age ends, the humanist era begins

This then is likely the end-game for the next-generation of collaborative tools: Don't just pile up millions of collaborative conversations and their work products and then largely ignore them. Instead, make actual use of the knowledge that your organization has accumulated to gain true business intelligence for insight, predictions, and decision making. I predict that the digital organization of tomorrow will make the fullest of its most important information assets, especially the full measure of digital knowledge of its workers.

As Research Director Michael Lock of the Aberdeen Group noted last year:

Now, not only are social tools used as an enabler in the process of creating actionable business insight, but increasingly the data underlying these social tools has enhanced our ability to understand our businesses, our customers, and the markets in which we compete. 
Along with machine data, and the potential for growth in VoIP data, unstructured information from social outlets is said to be one of the biggest growth areas for “big data” as we move into the latter half of this decade.  Essentially, traditional analytical technologies and techniques, in conjunction with the collaborative tools that allow us to link up with the minds of people inside and outside of our companies, along with the massive amounts of unstructured social data underlying those tools, carries a preposterous amount of opportunity for business analytics in the future.

Unfortunately, tools for performing analytics for social collaboration are still in their infancy, and so is the practice and management of them. Some are now finally starting to emerge, but there remains a large social collaboration analytics gap. Given the strategic nature of this functionality, I believe analytics for collaboration will be one of the next important sub-industries in the space.

So what does all this  mean for organizations trying to improve collaboration right now? For one, it means that as new innovations continue that hold great potential for improving how the workforce engages and creates value, organizations simply must continue to experiment frequently with new tools and concepts, and prepare to roll them into their collaborative toolkits.

Second, there is a definite fork in the road when it comes to collaborative tools, and though there is no one-size-fits-all, companies increasingly must face deciding on a primary environment, backed up by special purpose tools that support important business scenarios (example: social exception handling in the supply chain) that the main collaboration environment cannot handle as well.

Finally, there is the great strategic management conversation brewing once an open collaboration environment is established. Like it happened with the analytics of social data in the consumer space, once the tooling arrives, many interesting new things are possible. Business leaders that seek to make the most from their investments in collaboration will enable these higher order possibilities, once they lay a modern foundation for workforce engagement.

Additional reading:

Does technology improve employee engagement?

The major enterprise collaboration platforms and their mobile clients

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