The blending of apps with our collaboration tools: An inevitable trend

As the tools that support collaboration become more strategic to how we work, a growing connection is emerging between them and the rest of our applications and data.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

What's in an effective collaboration tool today? That's perhaps the most foundational question we can ask at the moment, as the seemingly unending procession of new applications and solutions continues as new entrants each promise in their own way to improve how we work together in digital environments.

The nature of collaboration tools available today continue to evolve and specialize. Enterprise social networks, team chat tools, and unified communications platforms are some of the major branches of the tree of digital collaboration. Numerous other collaboration sub-specialities have emerged and developed in recent years as well, such as functional collaboration tools at aimed at sales, marketing, R&D, HR, legal, and other key corporate activities.

Other entrants have focused on improving specific modes of collaboration, such a video or Web conferencing, document collaboration, intranet sites, workforce communities, or social collaboration, with some new set of innovations or advances. Admittedly, I am sometimes struck at the relative similarity between many collaboration products and services over the years since I began tracking them here on ZDNet in earnest over a half decade ago. Yet many of these tools do focus on solving some well-defined problem in how we work together.

I do find that the bar to entry to the industry is fairly low: Collaboration is about enabling improved communication between people. The simpler and more straightforward it is, typically the better. This can make it easy to develop new collaboration tools, though hard to reach critical mass unless the solution is addressing a significant unsolved issue for a large number of stakeholders in the market.

Collaboration Tools and App Integration: Enterprise Social Networks, Slack, AppFusions, Atlassian Marketplace, and More

Connecting Our Teamwork to the Apps We Use

So, despite a lot of me-too collaboration applications over the years, a new trend has emerged of late to address as the troubling gap between systems of record and systems of engagement that many, including myself, had seen in the enterprise as a growing issue over the years.

The root cause is fairly straightforward: The world of work became increasingly complex as it grew more cross silo, more dynamic, centered around corporate information, and involving an wider, larger, and more diverse range of actors via a growing array of device types, especially mobile. We've learned that these silos create artificial barriers to achieving effective collaboration by separating the collaborative process from the information it creates.

For their part, the leading providers in the collaboration industry have each taken distinct paths towards realizing a more contemporary collaboration vision that is more richer, more contextual, and integrated into our daily work.

As I explored recently, Microsoft's latest collaboration strategy is to put the team -- or group -- in the center of the collaboration process, then allow them to pull the requisite mode of collaboration into the local setting as needed. IBM has taken a slightly different tack, creating an ongoing series of generational collaboration platforms over the last fifteen years that provides the leading new style of collaboration as the industry advances. Salesforce has been growing an increasingly powerful collaboration platform based on community that integrates across it's marketing, sales, service, and analytics clouds.

Others, as I will explore here over the next few months, have taken their own tacks.

Thus, as the the digital workplace becomes ever more sophisticated and technologically enabled, the collaboration space remains a rich and fertile space in the modern digital workplace. But perhaps the most exciting advances in digital collaboration are coming from newer startups. Slack is perhaps the most well-known poster child of the latest generation of collaborative tools.

It is Slack in particular, through its rich set of application integrations, that is perhaps breaking through the aforementioned and long standing barrier between the applications we use to get work done, and the apps we use to work together. These activities often share the same vital business context, but have long taken place in entirely different systems that don't talk to each other, leaving a broken trail of digital work behind them.

While Slack is primarily a team-based collaboration tool today and not intended for enterprise-scale collaboration, at least yet, it has been quite effective an bringing together the day-to-day fabric of communication and collaboration with more transaction applications.

Slack's app integration is so seamless and effective -- and in my analysis a big reason why it's so popular -- that some have recently said that the need for "full blown apps" will decrease as we effortlessly work within one contextual collaboration environment, referencing and invoking external applications that understand the underlying situations and scenarios into which they're working to operate more efficiently.

Documents, e-mails, record keeping systems like ERP, CRM, and HRM, calendaring, and much more can all be worked on and collaborating with, either with teammates or the apps themselves. I've used some of the popular calendaring bots in Slack to rethink how I schedule meetings and offload laborious tasks such as expense reporting that used to require me to manually coordinate various digital information sources.

A Renaissance in Contextual Collaboration

But Slack isn't the only indicator of what's about to come. It's been clear for years that applications were a natural fit for social networks, if we could only find the right model. Hoping we'd found an effective model years ago, I espoused the OpenSocial standard and even served on the board of the associated foundation, but in the end, it was only a partial solution.

Others have taken the ideas of socially-enabled apps and run with them as well. Atlassian's Marketplace and AppFusion's social app integrations for IBM Connections, Microsoft SharePoint, Salesforce, and Alfresco.

The key appears to be in providing a highly usable interface and an extremely easy way for 3rd party applications to integrate in a seamless and effective fashion, and benefit from the result as a business. After a few years of few real advances in the collaboration industry, app integration shows the promise of a significant move forward in the art of the possible. I'll be exploring the growing convergence of apps and collaboration tools in more detail here in the coming months, as it's clear it's one of the most interesting and useful emerging spaces in the collaboration industry.

Additional Reading

Enterprises confront the reality of 'multilayered' collaboration

The leading enterprise intranet, portal, and collaboration platforms for 2016

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