Enterprises confront the reality of 'multilayered' collaboration

The arrival of wave after wave of new communications and collaboration tools has overwhelmed many IT organizations. Far from blocking them, smart organizations are finding ways to bring order to the chaos.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

The growing challenge with digital collaboration today has been long in the making. The issue itself is perhaps best demonstrated by the rapid rise of Slack, the current darling of team chat and wildly popular with its users. In many of my recent conversations with IT managers, I find that Slack is invading the workplace on many fronts, regardless of it's sanctioned or not.

Shadow IT is not new of course, but in the collaboration space, the sheer amount of proliferation has reached a high water mark recently. For most of the history of IT, organizations offered the workforce a few well-defined tools through which employees and other stakeholders were supposed to communicate and collaborate. Not any more.

Instead, this relatively stable state, which many -- including myself -- have long argued has been artificial, unhelpful, and sharply limited exploration and regular improvement of digital interaction, has largely come to an end in most organizations.

Now employees and departments are helping themselves to the tools they believe they really need. At the same time, companies are steadily dealing with what is now too many categories of communication and collaboration software to adequately manage and govern, much less individual apps, the tracking of which is now nearly impossible for most companies.

Layers of Digital, Social, Team, Community Collaboration

The top categories of apps today include VOIP, Web conferencing, e-mail, unified communications, IM/chat, file shares, file sync, CMS/DMS, intranets, discussion forums, enterprise social networks, relationship management platforms (including customer-facing CRM), and last but not least, online community. There are many other types as well, all of which try to solve unique problems, some in niche areas, others in novel new ways.

Further complicating matters has been two shifts: The rise of cloud services for most new modern collaboration tools, as well as new digital touchpoints, especially mobile. The first shift has created a major new, easily adopted, and self-service vector into organizations via SaaS delivery. These news apps then outdated virtually all of the last generation of non-modern, non-mobile native applications.

Finally, the most recent generation of collaboration, deeply informed by social media and networks, took the practice into the realm of the high scale and participative online community, making a case that it was likely the primary model for enterprise-wide collaboration going forward. Social business, as it was and is known, tried valiantly to bring together all stakeholders into large, participative communities. However, as mass collaboration did not address every business need, not everyone came, though social business remains a popular strategic approach for many organizations.

Instead, something else happened over the last two years: Reality intruded, the industry exploded, and made it clear that human interaction could and would benefit from digital support in many more different flavors and styles that we had imagined. In short, we finally learned as an industry there would be no one collaboration platform or style to rule them all.

The new collaboration landscape: Cultivate and compete

These days, what I'm hearing from those in charge of collaboration tools for their organization is a sort of weary resignation: No matter how hard they plan, promote, and evangelize an officially recognized collaboration 'toolkit' for their organization, certain groups will find genuine value and benefit in other, different options.

With the CIO's hold over which apps should be used by workers steadily slipping, it's become quite hard to enforce mandates anyway, especially when alternatives are so easy to access and the value so evident. Perhaps much more importantly, the monoculture of collaboration solutions of the recent past just wasn't healthy. It constrained what was possible, curtailed innovation, and limited the richness and variety that is the hallmark of any diverse ecosystem.

But the monoculture was more manageable and easier to secure than a vast patchwork of disjointed collaboration solutions, so the argument went. In fact, as collaborative tools have proliferated in our organizations, we've also encountered the so-called Collaboration Paradox: The more tools and channels that we have, the more fragmented our interaction becomes.

So, what to do about this state of affairs? We can't close Pandora's box, nor should we want to. Most adopters value the powerful new capabilities and features that the latest collaboration tools offer. But by adopting them ad hoc, we also appear to create long-term operational and governance issues that won't go away either.

    For a while, it seemed unclear if there would be a successful approach that the IT world would discover to deal with this situation. Certainly, the startup I mentioned in the opening of this piece, Slack, has found a way, through mass integration and searchable group history, to generate a breakthrough that actually solves many of the problem of tool proliferation. Other companies like AppFusions are trying to bring this to other platforms. I believe this desiloing-through-integration approach may ultimately solve the fragmentation issue for a good many organizations.

    However, not every company can or will want to employ Slack or an other single vendor to attempt to solve the collaboration paradox through technology alone. For those, the other option increasingly appears to be what I'm calling a 'multilayered collaboration strategy.'

    In this approach, technology leadership can embrace innovation at the edge, meet far more user needs, foster variety across collaborative layers, and provide search, compliance, record retention, analytics, backup, community management, and other support functions across the collaborative fabric of the organization. By collaborative fabric, I mean the full array of on-premises and cloud solutions, using several of them as anchors or hubs that provide integration to other channels when it makes sense, in much the same way that e-mail provides a common connective thread across virtually all collaboration tools via notifications and summaries/digests.

    A Multilayered Digital Collaboration Strategy

    Key aspects of a multilayered collaboration strategy

    What seems to be the key ingredients to such a strategy? I'm seeing a set of common strategies being employed by IT departments. If these are synthesized into a single view, they look something like this:

    • An open and inclusive collaboration portfolio. A successful multilayered strategy includes other solutions selected outside of IT as much as possible, no matter what they are in the organization. Instead of imposing too much constraint, the collaboration strategy is instead carefully designed to take advantage of loss of control.
    • Techniques to connect islands of collaboration. One of the principles functions of the strategy is to reduce fragmentation and increase connectedness, as today's collaboration landscape ironically tends towards silos. This means identifying and deploying technologies and techniques that will wire together the islands in a lightweight and manageable fashion. This used to be through the the adoption of standards like OpenSocial, but API-to-API integration seems to be the dominant approach now. One or two hub platforms are selected that are amenable to integration and can form the foundation of a capable digital strategy. These are used to connect everything together, typical at the mass collaboration and team collaboration layers.
    • Support functions that treat all collaboration apps as (relatively) equal players. IT ensures the full range of collaborative support functions should be connected to the entire collaboration portfolio, as it grows and evolves.
    • Whitespace in the layers are actively addressed. By maintaining a nuanced and layered view, the collaboration department can identify potentially underserved areas. This is one of the great strengths of this approach: Not assuming that one platform will solve every need, encouraging experimentation by end users in the white spaces, and supporting successful experiments.

    In my view, this type of collaboration strategy is much more likely to succeed in today's complex, fast evolving, and highly heterogeneous digital workplaces. It's part of a what I believe is a new and actively emerging model for a more networked, less-hierarchical, and more capable model of IT. I would love to hear your experience in how you are managing the vagaries of today's rich but challenging collaboration environments.

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