Today's enterprise collaboration landscape: Cloudy, social, mobile

While the focus has shifted over the years, as have the vendors, the enterprise collaboration space finally looks a lot more like today's digital world.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

If you looked back at my lists five -- or even closer to 10 years ago -- you'd see a few of the same players, but a lot less maturity and certainly a different focus when it comes to enterprise collaboration. On-premise used to rule, and social features were bolted on -- often awkwardly -- on top of existing content and document management capabilities, if they even existed at all. Mobile features -- or at least useful ones -- were nowhere to be found.

Nowadays, the cloud version of enterprise collaboration platforms often takes the front seat. Social capabilities are now usually developed natively from the ground up, using the latest concepts in social business. And entirely new product categories have taken up the social collaboration mantle, from unified communication to file syncing. Native mobile clients are still in the process of catching up but are improving swiftly.

That said, although I've been steadily inundated with announcements of many new enterprise collaboration tools and services in just the last year alone, for strategic usage by large enterprises only a short list of credible, capable contenders has managed to emerge.  Some of these are well known, while others are mostly familiar to the enterprise customer.

Thus, given the always shifting landscape, I'm regularly asked who the top players are in enterprise social collaboration. The list below is probably as complete as any, given that there are countless niche players and offerings that either have strong feature sets or best-in-class functions, yet are also unlikely to have the resources or skills to support the many detailed needs of large customers any time soon.

Such needs often include extensive customizability for specific business scenarios, deep integration with existing back-end systems, and the ability to support roll-outs that span dozens of countries and legal geographies, with the complex management, administration, security, and governance requirements this inevitably entails.

Enterprise Collaboration Features Today: Cloudy, Social, and Mobile

However, before we explore the today's enterprise collaboration landscape, I'd be remiss in not pointing out that having made a vendor/product decision is actually as far as one could be from making said choice successful in a given organization. In fact, the top success factors for a new collaborative technology are typically not technology concerns at all.

For example, much has been made of the likely underperformance of a particularly high-profile type of collaboration tool -- enterprise social networks (ESNs) -- if rollout is conducted without the requisite supporting behavioral, cultural, and process changes. We forget at our peril that collaboration is a fundamentally human activity. This implies that any use of enabling technology without taking into account how people actually conduct their work, their inclinations to share information and interact with each other, and in particular how the proposed technology will empower them and alter their collaborative behavior for the better/worse, is bound to disappoint.

That said, workforce collaboration can be greatly boosted by the right enabling technology that 1) effectively collapses time and distance, 2) lays down clear digital pathways that improve team-based outcomes, and 3) makes the right information and people eminently easy to find wherever and whenever work gets done in the organization. While technology alignment with the rest of the organization is always desirable, in reality, the solution that provides the lowest friction and highest enablement of collaboration has the most business value in my experience.

Maturity, Social, Mobile, and Cloud Today's Collaboration Focus

So with that out of the way, let's focus on the offerings. Here are the top players today -- in alphabetical order by vendor -- based on my personal experience in what clients are currently focusing on in their product evaluations and comparisons. Please note this list is anecdotal and not exhaustive, but I believe it covers the majority of the big players in the space today. I'd also observe that there is a distinct tendency of the large established companies to buy up the small collaboration vendors once they have any measure of success, so buyer beware.

Box. One of the better funded enterprise collaborative startups, this comparatively recent pure play cloud offering focuses on files as the center of the collaborative experience. Offering content management and online workspaces, Box offers many different ways of interacting with files while offering the enterprise-grade security that IT departments insist on these days. Mobile access is very good with apps on iOS and Android devices. Box also offers off-the-shelf integration with Google Apps, Salesforce, and NetSuite, as well as an open API for custom integration needs. Box has had a great ride over the last couple of years and has rapidly becoming one of the standards for enterprise file-based collaboration in the cloud.

Citrix Podio. Lesser known than many of the big marquees in the enterprise collaboration space, Citrix has long made a name for itself with a variety of communication and network-based solutions for enterprises. Podio is a workspace-based collaboration environment that emphasizes project management, along with all the usual social networking features. CRM, recruiting, and event management are also core use cases. Like some of the other top offerings, Podio has an app store where businesses can find and select templates for other types of collaborative business processes. Vitally, Podio also allows collaboration to occur across the firewall with customers and business partners, a hot emerging capability that lets companies access some of the highest value collaborative scenarios. The Podio mobile app is one of the most highly rated enterprise collaboration clients in the iOS App store. One of Podio's big strengths is Citrix's extensive experience with cloud and enterprise networks, but the company has its work cut out for it to grow beyond existing Citrix customers.

Cisco WebEx Social. The enterprise social network formerly-known-as Quad has recently been renamed, but remains one of the most comprehensive available, with rich support for communities, e-mail, and content management. WebEx Social also stands out from the pack with strong support for and integration with unified communications. It also has some of the strongest mobile capabilities overall. While Cisco has clearly been challenged in arriving later in the game than some of its top competitors, it remains one of the more compelling offerings, though like Podio, it's much more likely to be found at committed Cisco customers than elsewhere, for now.

IBM Connections. At this point probably the pre-eminent grande dame of enterprise collaboration, IBM Connections has gone through a long process of evolution and maturity to arrive today as a shoe-in on the short list of almost any major enterprise collaboration selection effort. IBM Connections goes well beyond the basic enterprise social network and offers full-fledged integration with the entire collaborative experience, from e-mail and content management to unified communication and all the standard office productivity suites. Connections offers the extended feature set you'd expect from one of the most mature and advanced enterprise collaboration suites available including social analytics, intranet integration, and APIs. As you'd expect, mobile support is excellent as well. The sheer size and technology footprint of Connections might be daunting for anyone but the large enterprise, but then again, Connections is about as capable as enterprise collaboration tools come these today.

Jive Social Business Platform. The largest player in the top-end of the space that is purely dedicated to enterprise social networks, Jive has carved out a sizeable and respectable niche with large customers and others that appreciate its refined and sophisticated offering. Built from the ground up for social, the Jive social platform plays in the usual strategic areas while also emphasizing what few of the others do: A deliberate focus on structured business outcomes in CRM, customer care, and employee engagement. Jive has an app store with a growing number of applications to make it possible to engage in many kinds of work activity right in the collaborative environment. The platform also has strong integration features, a growing set of gamification capabilities, and increasingly sophisticated mobile apps.

Microsoft SharePoint & Yammer. In SharePoint, Microsoft has the largest presence of any collaborative tool in the enterprise, except possibly e-mail, where it also is a top player. However, SharePoint has long been a platform for document management, and as such has been slow to evolve the latest collaborative features involving social networking, file syncing, and lightweight messaging. While it can be augmented with platforms like Newsgator, which add many of these 'missing' capabilities, Microsoft acquired Yammer last year as a solution to address some of these shortcomings on its own. While Microsoft has recently published quite a bit of information on how it intends to reconcile and integrate the two platforms, both of which have extensive market penetration, the jury is out on exactly how effective the effort will ultimately be. That said, most companies already have one or both platforms and any enterprise collaboration strategy has to be clear on how these are involved, or not. That said, both are strong platforms for their core competencies, though mobile support for SharePoint remains quite poor, and Yammer is still lacking in enterprise sophistication. Cloud support for SharePoint is being offered through Office 365, while Yammer has long been a cloud native and has very good mobile support.

Salesforce Chatter. The social features added to Salesforce in the form of its Chatter platform were intended as a path towards creating a Facebook for the enterprise, at least originally. Chatter has a strong presence in the marketplace and I occasionally hear from IT managers that are feeling pressure from their sales teams to deploy the product more broadly. Chatter began as a functional but basic enterprise social network in the cloud in its first incarnation, to a much stronger contender more recently with the release of Chatter Communities which allows employees, partners, and customers to collaborate together, a key use case as I noted above. Chatter has a growing range of social networking capabilities, including workflow support, IM, file sharing, and smart conversation filters. Capable mobile clients are available as well.

SAP Jam. A tough one to decide to incorporate on this list, SAP Jam is the newest entrant on this list, which I covered in detail here last October. Yet I believe it's one that many organizations will at least consider, given its pedigree, ambition, and support from one of the companies that most understands social when it comes to applying to their business (I profiled the impressive SAP Community Network as the opening case study of my recent book on social business.) In addition to the usual offerings, SAP Jam includes pre-designed situated solutions for high value business use cases in marketing, sales, HR, customer care, and others.

How To Choose A Collaborative Platform: Meet Business Needs

Given the growing number of good choices at a wide variety of price points and feature sets, I see most selection efforts for enterprise collaboration solutions ultimately employ one of two lenses to make the choice:

1) A desired set of target features that's believed to be desired within the organization such as document sharing, microblogging, news feeds, file syncing, or mobile knowledge access, along with supporting technical capabilities like application integration, search, administration consoles, and governance features.

2) A more abstract set of business requirements selected to address a list of long-standing functional challenges like poor collaboration, better access to knowledge, reducing travel costs, or speeding up business processes.

In today's BYOD and BYOA world, workers can easily access the apps that meet their point needs, even if it fragments the information landscape of the enterprise. However the latter of the two lenses above is a perspective from which businesses can still have the most impact by bringing in technology solutions that solve specific and ongoing issues for a broad swath of the business.

However, having participated in a number of enterprise collaboration platform showdowns over the years, I can attest to this: Having a clear understanding of a) how your workers will actually use the tools, b) maximizing their impact through deliberate design thinking when it comes to enabling key features, and then c) testing the tools under these conditions is the only way to have a good chance to find the right fit. Otherwise employees will increasingly self-serve with the countess free and easy-to-use applications they find that really solve their problems.

After all, recent data show that the top enterprise collaboration tool today may actually be Facebook, based on real-world usage. I continue to encounter HR managers who have found it's hard work to stop this without a compelling alternative. Instead, companies are likely far better off investing real time in finding the solutions that truly meet their workers needs for collaboration while creating the right strategic changes to the business to make success likely. Then, and only then, driving adoption in a far more receptive and effective environment.

Related Reading:

The new digital customer journey: Cross-channel, mobile, social, self-service, and engaged

All together now: cloud collaboration, social and docs

The convergence of mobile and social: The next IT battleground

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