How digital collaboration will evolve in 2015

Providing a usable digital workplace today increasingly means giving access to a wider set of collaboration tools as part of an open adoption approach that's is more dynamic, user-centric, and strategic.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Information technology typically changes in leaps and bounds, and for collaboration in digital channels, those changes have been rather turbulent over the last decade. While the most significant overall trend during this time has been the strategic up-leveling of corporate engagement using the social business model to foster large-scale, high impact corporate communities, the pendulum of innovation has recently swung back to more intimate and close quarters.

These days, it's lightweight tools and techniques for working together that are in vogue again. The reasons are complex but can mostly be summarized partially as a push back against the perceived scale and complexity of newer and more strategic forms of collaboration and partly just because better formats and user experiences for collaboration continue to be discovered and developed.

As a result, simpler forms of communication and sharing knowledge, well demonstrated by the growth and popularity of services like Dropbox, Box, and now Slack shows that innovation in collaboration isn't slowing down. In fact, I find that offerings are continuing to proliferate, instead of consolidating, like we'd typically expect in an otherwise mature market.

This is largely driven by two key forces: Collaboration has a) become central to the high functioning of today's knowledge worker (the worker that usually creates most of the bottom-line value in companies today), and b) continues to evolve as the arrival of new collaborative models is found to create high levels of differentiation and leverage to business operations.

Ranking the business value of the top types of digital collaboration: History and evolution

Because of these two forces, we've seen the supporting technology market evolving steadily the last several years -- and it's still far from stabilizing -- despite an overall shakeout to a core set of enterprise-class tools at the high end. Thus a novel stream of significant new collaboration tools and channels have emerged and become adopted, even as companies are often settling on a primary toolkit. This leads to another trend in 2015: A struggle to manage an emerging constellation of special-purpose and specific-use collaboration tools and channels.

Perhaps most significantly from a worker perspective, mobile has played an increasing role in enterprise collaboration in the two years, yet capabilities remain relatively nascent. This means demand for mobile collaboration will continue to grow rapidly this year, even though its form factor doesn't at first seem to lend itself to extended communication and dialogue. However, rich media has turned out to be a particularly strong feature for mobile collaboration. So too the ability to browse collaborative channels and receive notifications or provide lightweight responses, such as the conveyance of approvals or key decisions. In general, we'll see a growth in the "micro-moments" that mobile devices enable in the otherwise low-value gaps in our workday.

Related: The new digital workplace: How enterprises are preparing for the future of work

Digital Collaboration: Tech Change and Strategic Evolution

From a management perspective, several distinct threads have emerged with the current state of changing affairs with digital collaboration.

The first has been the broad realization that merely putting every knowledge worker into constant contact with each other in all digital channels doesn't produce results by itself. Collaboration, to have value to the business, must have a purpose, a directed outcome to reap the well-documented potential benefits.

In fact, over the last few years, in sharp contrast to the consumer world, e-mail has continued to be the top "social" tool of choice in the workplace. This is largely because workers already know how to use it, it's simple, and it still lets workers collaborate with anyone that has an e-mail address -- unlike many corporate social tools, even today. Instead of broad interoperability, today's collaboration initiatives have often focused on injecting improved modes of collaboration directly into the center of high value workplace scenarios, such as sales, marketing, operations, or customer care. One way of doing this is by connecting collaboration to the existing IT systems that run the company.

More accurately, this means positioning social collaboration environments as the connective tissue between key business systems and the high value team-based processes that takes place between them. This allows those processes to have the full information context, improved discoverability, the ability to be analyzed, and for the organization to learn from. This is possible because business knowledge and collaboration are openly documented together in a networked structure across systems of record and systems of engagement. Digital skills such as "Working Out Loud" are now being taught to knowledge workers to support what the tools can now do. I suspect 2015 will be a breakout year for the adoption of new digital skills such as this.

To actually enable this high value open collaborative landscape -- and as I suggested would likely take place but has only reached critical mass as we head into 2015 -- we are now witnessing that collaboration environments are becoming increasingly well-integrated with line of business systems, from document management to CRM. For example, the level of application integration that platforms like Yammer, Jive, and especially Slack, has grown recently such that many workers now have a ready connection between their collaborative environments and key corporate apps/data.

This solves other issues that have plagued older, closed, and less-integrated collaboration tools. We are at last seeing the elimination of long-standing issues like manual cutting and pasting key corporate data in and out of collaborative tools as we work, or the e-mailing of many multiple versions of documents that then must be later reconciled by hand. This is real, practical progress for companies to take advantage of this year, though there is still certainly some way to go, and these advancements remain uneven in today's tools, and is what IT leaders should focus on.

So while corporate social tools sadly still don't have the broad interoperability that e-mail does, they are instead getting much better integrated contextually into the workplace than e-mail is. In terms of where companies should center their collaboration strategies in 2015, it's notable that e-mail has not evolved for many years now, nor is it likely to, despite IBM's recent and valiant attempt with their new Verse offering. Instead, e-mail is increasingly becoming more of a notification channel and less the place for serious, long-term collaboration around vital business information and processes.

Related: Reinventing email, workflow: Here's what we really need

How should managers improve digital collaboration?

So where should managers focus their collaborative improvements this year? This question takes us to the more strategic view of these improvements to collaboration that must be supported. In 2015, collaborative leaders must determine how to a) cope better at a technology and management level with digital channel fragmentation, b) bring better collaborative skills to workers (including how to choose the right collaboration tool for the job), and c) figure out how to unify the streams of data that are coming out of our portfolios of collaboration tools so that strategic decision making is accelerated by better flows of knowledge and not hampered by digital silos.

Collectively, these issues are increasingly moving up to the CIO and CHRO as these executive roles start working closer together this year because they can address both behavior and technology change more effectively as a unit. A teaming of these two C-level roles is something I believe we'll see happening more in 2015, as we see organization's more comprehensively begin redesigning their digital workplace of the future to develop a more rational, consistent, and future-ready workplace.

The second set of management concerns with collaboration goes well beyond the challenges of creating a more usable collaborative environment for workers. A new perspective is emerging that looks at how digital collaboration has become fundamentally strategic to business in a much more profound way than simple on-the-ground workforce collaboration enablement. Instead, collaboration is transforming into a new type of high-scale business capability in its own right between between companies and marketplaces and between groups of companies themselves.

I believe this strategic evolution of collaboration as a distinct force that organizations can wield to break through previously unsolvable business challenges or a create highly disruptive and competitive new business models is one of the biggest stories of the decade. These trends will reach an all time high-water mark in 2015, though their growth will continue to ramp up throughout the rest of the decade.

The first manifestation of these new strategic forms of digital collaboration was with the collaborative economy, something that well-known social media analyst Jeremiah Owyang has been documenting as a genuine large-scale business revolution for several years now. It describes a new top-level model where companies use collaboration with their customers at scale to produce value by sharing products and resources in a structured way with each other. While startups are far more likely to adopt this form of collaboration as the fundamental engine of their business, Jeremiah has been tracking many traditional firms starting to collaborate in this way as well, with his Crowd Companies initiative.

The second manifestation was with global solutions networks, something I included for the first time in my breakdown of important emerging enterprise technology last year. Most famously described in 10 categories by Don Tapscott, this model is where B2B digital communities between companies are formed on the basis of common challenges and looming disruption. Global solutions networks, as evidenced by the number of extant examples, is the most strategic and highest order of emerging new forms of digital collaboration.

Who will take digital collaboration to the next level?

While these are some of the most significant, there are also certainly other changes happening this year to the digital communications and collaboration landscape. However one of the biggest outstanding issues remains determining who is responsible for making them. Those usually in charge of digital collaboration may be in a strong skill position to deliver these capabilities to the workforce, for example, but aren't in a position of responsibility or experience to shift the organization to the next plane of collaboration, such as collaborative economy or global solutions networks.

Instead, such a shift to the next strategic level, as I've recently pointed out, almost certainly require serious commitment, sustained support, and close partnership between nearly everyone in the C-suite. But this is true of digital change in general, and will be one of the most important subjects to discuss in what will certainly be a very exciting year indeed for digital collaboration and the future of work.

Additional Reading

The new CIO mandate

Social business adoption in the workplace

Are social silos holding back business results?

Editorial standards