A funny thing happened over the last decade or so: Our work networks got really, really big.

It wasn’t that long ago that even the most seasoned salesperson’s address book would have maybe a couple hundred entries. Now, though, it’s common for the average worker to be connected to more team members, vendors, clients and conference contacts than the 500 LinkedIn counts.

A Slow Evolution

This didn’t happen overnight. A number of factors led to this network explosion: the proliferation of tools to maintain business relationships, the mobility created by always available Internet connections and the growth of global and geographically distributed workplaces, to name just a few. Together, these have increased the bandwidth for work.

Like many other technological developments, stretching from the wheel to Gutenberg’s press to the airplane, they’ve made us more productive. But they’ve had unforeseen consequences.

Employees are chomping at the bit to be more productive, but they’re hitting a bottleneck. The old tools we use to get work done and the IT departments that keeping them running are strained.

Tools for business are still transactional in nature and lack the fluidity that characterizes how we actually work. Individuals rarely create in a vacuum: Collaboration is a huge part of how we stay productive, especially with larger networks.

Additionally, traditional business tools don’t extend between businesses; they’re siloed off from each other. What employees truly need are services that allow them to interact and collaborate in real-time across their productivity network.

Addressing the Problem

Employees are increasingly solving this problem for themselves, and, in the process, recreating the office suite. I

ts active evolution means workers are using a heterogeneous set of services on a daily basis. No longer content to rely on a single vendor for all their needs, workers are picking tools and services from a variety of providers. Email, document creation, calendar, file sharing and project management each come from a different company.

And thanks to the increasingly easy discovery of those tools, via the web and mobile app stores, employees are now more empowered than ever to find the ones right for them. As a result, decisions on what tools to adopt are now made at an organizational, team, or even individual level.

At the same time, the bring your own device (BYOD) movement is driving this diversification even further. By 2017, Gartner predicts that 50 percent of employers will require users to supply their own devices, driven by individual users’ preferences. This will in turn set the direction for the hardware and software within company boundaries.

But Wait a Minute ...

These trends run counter to the creation of an effective collaboration network. Ironically, increasing the mix of tools and devices is making it harder for employees to collaborate.

There’s an obvious need for a solution that bridges these gaps. Companies, employees and even developers would benefit from an open, collaborative platform that breaks through silos and works seamlessly across these numerous points of access.

Learning Opportunities

The elements of such a platform aren’t surprising or revolutionary. It has to a) work across multiple devices, both desktop and mobile, b) enable communication and project coordination between individuals and groups, and c) facilitate seamless sharing of content.

Though email often fits the bill, its creation predates the modern era of collaboration by a few decades. Because of this, it's not well suited to our modern workflows. It offers a merely passable solution where we'd obviously be better served by a great solution, one tailored to how we work today.

Nowadays, this network isn’t built by sharing a single protocol. Instead, it’s made up of a spiderweb of APIs. With the need for interoperability growing, open APIs are becoming table stakes for services. This is driving us toward a world in which end users expect to integrate the tools of their choosing into their own personalized office suites. We’re already seeing this come to fruition.

Tying it All Together

Take, for example, Slack: The team communication tool aggregates data from other services via their respective APIs, acting as a meeting place for all the various sources of information a team is using. This has been a core part of the value proposition that’s helping them stand out in a crowded market. To do this, Slack takes advantage of APIs provided by other services. Some, like Github’s API, provide information about events and activity.

These apps all have something in common: they use APIs to tie together into a suite of tools, and create even more utility for end users. As users’ expectations around collaboration increase, the absence of open APIs like these will become a larger and larger liability for products. Developers who close off their services risk being left out of business’s emerging collaboration suites.

There’s plenty of work to do to create more integrated products, but end users are already reaping the benefits with the offerings being actively developed today.

As this class of solutions with open APIs continues to expand, we’ll also be able to work more seamlessly across different services and devices and be more productive. And that’s an outcome that puts those growing business networks to good use.

Title image by Aftab Uzzaman  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.