Have you ever been asked, "Why can't you just tell me what's the best tool to collaborate with?”

If you are feeling challenged by the number of collaboration solutions and options available, you're not alone. Working as both a consultant and practitioner over the last 15 years, I can testify that the collaboration software landscape's complexity has grown exponentially over that time.

A Messy, Human-Centered Activity

It's possible to discern the underlying collaboration patterns that define a particular tool with an experienced eye. But thanks to software's malleability, differences in user experience continue to make it difficult to compare apples with apples.

For example, even what you'd think of as a relatively simple feature -- such as file sharing -- is offered in a multitude of different approaches and features in execution. The distinction between asynchronous and synchronous collaboration also loses its meaning, as vendors blend both into their solutions.

One school of thought tries to address this by first defining the meaning of "collaboration." If we can only describe the necessary feature set for collaboration, then it should be possible to tick this off against the tools that meet this definition, right?

Defining collaboration is a red herring. Even if we reach a consensus on what constitutes collaboration, we end up applying a reductionist approach to what is a rich, messy, human-centered activity. It also rules out indirect activities that support or enable collaboration to take place, which may be exactly the appropriate role for technology to take.

The consumerization of enterprise technology also means that users can sign up for all sorts of different collaboration services, without worrying too much about how we want to classify them from a management or governance perspective.

Design-Led Approach

A design-led approach is a much better way to understand the collaboration tool landscape. Start with a fairly simply definition: collaboration tools support interaction between groups of people, including one-to-one. From this broadly inclusive definition, we can start to make sense of the way people want to work together using technology, rather than focusing on how we think they should.

Three major pattern sets emerge when looking over the current range of collaboration tools on the market. This helps us understand the possible fit of a particular tool in the context of workplace collaboration:

  1. Focus on work-group based versus whole workforce collaboration
  2. Support for situated (e.g., mobile first) versus multipurpose collaboration
  3. Need for purposeful versus conversational collaboration

Work-Group Based vs. Whole Workforce Collaboration

This first pattern looks at if collaboration occurs within defined work-groups -- such as a department, project team, business process or location -- or the whole workforce. A grey area exists in between, which supports both use cases or semi-defined and fluid work teams.

Take into account product or service complexity and the size of the workforce as well. They provide a good indication of the level of structure needed and point to other requirements around community management and platform administration. You will likely have a mix of internal and external users in the collaboration, so take into account this functional requirement.

Example platforms: Slack vs. Interact Intranet

Situated vs. Multipurpose

A situated collaboration tool is designed to support a particular or narrow range of usage scenarios, whereas a multipurpose tool can meet the needs of many different or general use cases.

Mobile-first enterprise collaboration solutions which aim to meet the needs of field and front-line workers is one situated use case that has grown in importance. Looking forward, the emergence of the enterprise Internet of Things (IoT) may also change our expectations for collaboration tools that support an even richer range of situated uses, beyond mobile first.

We will still need collaboration tools that support a range of different scenarios or use cases across mobile and desktop. Since collaboration tools are never completely device or interface agnostic, consider evaluating a tool against specific situations to ensure it meets user needs.

Example platforms: Cotap vs. Jive

Purposeful vs. Conversational

The difference here is between talking about issues (collaboration as knowledge sharing, shared understanding or exception handling) and taking action, either through collaborating around information objects (such as a document or wiki page) or coordinating action through social workflows or agile task management systems.

Conversational collaboration is a valid and valuable use case in its own right, but also can provide a bridge between different work groups where technical or other constraints prohibit more direct purposeful collaboration. Remember that many tools with a conversational bias can also be made more purposeful by combining them with other collaboration tools or business systems.

Example platforms: Atlasssian Confluence vs. Microsoft Yammer

Apply these patterns with a design mindset, rather than as a prescriptive model, to help make better sense of the collaboration tool landscape. By insisting on using strict categories and dot point feature lists, we make it more difficult to navigate that landscape.

After all, users are simply looking for tools that offer a good fit for the collaboration needs in their own particular work context. 

Title image Brian McDermott / all rights reserved