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Who has time to sort through all of the options in today’s collaboration tool landscape? With more than 150 different tools available (or more, depending on how broadly you define collaboration) it will take some time to find those that are good fits for your business. 

Up until recently, the norm for most organizations was a “one platform to rule them all” approach. Analysts and vendors talked the one platform talk, and IT favored it. But very few organizations have a one-size-fits-all solution that works well or is even used that way.

When you understand people -- the diverse cultures in organizations, their workflows and the need for productivity (you know, getting things done) -- the one-platform-for-all approach doesn't work for everybody. Organizations with many employees using collaboration tools often have two or three major platforms and quite a few smaller niche platforms that integrate into one of the larger ones.

Those organizations with high rates of collaboration across multiple platforms run into trouble because their IT-selected platforms don't work well for them or make their workflows worse, not better.

According to the vendors, their customers buy solutions for entire divisions or as much as two-thirds of their organizations. Most analysts and market researchers only look at IT (their main customer) and not at the whole organization to comprehend the real need. 

So segments of the organization (often large segments) will buy products out of their own funds to improve productivity and address their pain points.

A Team Sport

How did we get to this point? Few organizations reach an understanding of their needs -- the problems they are trying to solve, and their gaps before the selection process. IT makes the selection with a “one size fits all” mindset as it is easiest to manage. They opt for a vendor family that they already use to make licensing and problem resolution easier. And they work off feature checklists, frequently without understanding the fit or the features, nor doing the due diligence to understand whether the features work well for their needs.

The research, selection process, deployment and upkeep of collaboration tools demands a mix of 14 roles (technical development and support is one of the 14) to get a best-fit product in place with the right support. Think of it as a kind of “Moneyball” for social and collaboration success.

One heavy hitter won't bring in the win for you -- you need a mix of different roles to achieve that win. The 14 roles include social scientists, knowledge managers, communication managers, community managers, user experience researchers and designers, search experts and more. 

Employee needs often go missing or have a token representation at best in the needs assessment. With the full 14 Moneyball roles represented, you start to reach an understanding of the diverse employee needs across the organization.

Needs include workflow match, mental model match, ease of use, alignment with functional needs, and a common focus that often includes small, targeted apps, ease of integration, common standard structures and common APIs. This is close to what various divisions and groups go through to find tools that are best fits for their needs -- yet rarely is this done at an enterprise level.

The final big category in the needs is the ability to cross organizational boundaries. This is essential for customer interactions and in a B2B realm that includes partners, external support, consultants and contractors, and satellite entities that are not fully incorporated into the organization.

Three Big Buckets for Tools

Once the needs have been identified, next up is understanding the different high-level interaction models. You can break these down into three large buckets: 1. collective, 2. team/group/community/network and 3. real collaboration. I have used this lens in workshops and client engagements since 2007 -- sharing models with the related tool functionality needed to accomplish these categories -- and found it extremely valuable for honing needs, fit and product selection. More global systems often include a mix of these interaction model categories.

Focus on gathering information, objects and knowledge for assessment with a goal of completeness, understanding and critique. The different scales, needs and goals of features and functionality in the team/group/community/network cluster are essential for getting the right fit. For example, often organizations select team or group tools and then try to fit them as a platform for the whole organization, when a community or network-capable system is the proper fit.

The last and rarest tool is for real collaboration, which uses Peter J. Denning and Peter Yaholkovsky's framing. This targets working with many people to reach one final output, which involves negotiating conflicting ideas to move from many options to one cohesive solution. It's essential to negotiate and mitigate through these options, as well as retain the solutions and approaches that were not chosen (as they will likely be valuable for later iterations or other purposes). Few tools and services fit these distinct features and the functionality needed, but they are often essential to a well rounded collaboration system.

A global system takes a mix of these categories to provide a great offering with wide use. But frequently the wide offerings are from just one of these three categories rather than a well thought-through collation. All the platforms should work together, which is a challenge.

Ironically, the one-platform-for-all selections are often the least integration-friendly. Some smaller platforms handle integration rather well and in the last year or two have served as the hubs of more diverse systems in organizations.

Pace and Scale Needs

Three higher-level frameworks help work through all of the considerations related to pace and scale when evaluating tools, platforms and services based on needs and solution categories.

They come down to: 1. short term, 2. long term and 3. filter needs. All three need to be considered.

Short term is where the activity is happening. This short-term focus may lie in synchronous activities such as messaging, streams, ASAP communications and alerts. Short term also obtains in asynchronous activity interactions such as forums, team and group status and planning, discussions, comfortable spaces with permeable walls, and versioning around ideas, interests and objects.

The long-term view provides for future use, as services scale and endure. Considerations include the handling and management of archives -- how they are integrated (often with new systems over time) and where they reside (cloud and/or on-premises).

Solid search capability helps with short-term focus, but is vital for long-term views. It's essential to be able to easily find something from last quarter, last year or years back. You'll need full search across all assets, which includes contextual searching that not only surfaces a document, but does so in the context of the discussion(s) where it was shared and talked about.

The last high-level frame is filtering for both short- and long-term needs. It is often undervalued, and due diligence around it is often not given the emphasis it requires. Filtering keeps areas of interest in focus, and finds related elements in the short- and long-term approaches. When done proactively, this can be really helpful.

By establishing the requirements for not only IT selection, but for the whole of the organization, you can work through the categories of social software needed to build a system that serves the organization as a whole in a manageable manner.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  Rosenfeld Media