The Future of Collaboration is Right Under Our Noses

What's the future of collaboration, exactly? More to the point, what's the future of collaboration in the enterprise?

You might be tempted to think there are no easy answers, but on the contrary, it might be closer to the truth to say the answers are right in front of us. It might be a hoary old cliché, but the future really is -- wait for it -- here today. In consumer products. The consumerization of IT is far from over, and there's a few key currents in consumer usage patterns that we really should pay attention to.

These days you could do a lot worse in predicting enterprise collaboration trends than simply looking at the consumer market and connecting a few dots to see what works with users. It's not apples and apples, surely -- Snapchat is about as likely to find enterprise support in a large insurance company as Richard Sherman is to be tweeting fond check-ins with his bestie Michael Crabtree at a charity event this winter -- but certain things are worth watching. Specifically, when you see a consumer groundswell that transcends specific demographics -- say, of age, device form factor or even both -- you should stand up and pay attention.

Where do we see these important trends? With Facebook. But not, perhaps, in the way you think.

What Would Facebook Do?

It's been a news cycle or two since all the frenzy around the Princeton study that foolishly made use of a single data set to predict Facebook's irrelevance, as well as the social giant's own amusing riposte. These stories captured our interest for a heartbeat in the days just before Satya Nadella made Microsoft cool again with a snap of his poetry-reading fingers. Lost in all the furor of first "Really smart people say Facebook is dying" and then "correlation DOES NOT EQUAL causation (so maybe they're not that smart after all)" was the context of the thing itself.

Princeton erred, yes, but not simply in correlating the frequency of Google search data with relevance. Princeton erred by missing the entire context of what Facebook has become and how Facebook has grown -- a context that has direct implications for enterprise social collaboration platforms.

Princeton's entire argument rested on the premise that Facebook's fortunes could be predicted -- apples to apples, as it were -- by tracing the fortunes of MySpace, the online social network that preceded it. This premise, as it turns out, is terribly flawed in a way that matters very much for enterprise IT. And as the Jesuits who taught me the foundations of logic would happily remind you, you cannot build a winning argument on even a single flawed premise. It's the weak brick in the foundation, the "Rocky Raccoon" and "Piggies" that kept the White Album from being great (you would not find any tracks so weak on Revolver or Sergeant Pepper, for instance).

MySpace and Facebook both found their initial population boom with teens, with youth. Both surged to popularity as social networks for young people -- but that's where the similarity ends. Because MySpace peaked before the worldwide explosion of mobile. MySpace never grew beyond young people, never embraced their parents and grandparents. And MySpace never really learned how to monetize itself until it was far, far too late.

Facebook -- unlike MySpace -- thrives in a world of mobile with a development strategy that gives mobile apps equal (if not greater) weight than the traditional desktop browser. And Facebook -- unlike MySpace -- is still growing and thriving specifically because your mother-in-law is on it more often than your teenage daughter.

Mobile matters. Demographics matter. Money talks. The enterprise is listening. Listening well.

Familiarity Breeds Usability 

Look at Yammer, as just one example. Microsoft's cloud-driven social network takes a couple very important cues from Facebook in both these areas. A development strategy that places a focus on mobile apps and mobile friendliness puts Yammer in the pocket, and/or on the tablet, of every enterprise user with nothing more than a quick download-and-install from their App Store or marketplace of choice. Not just Microsoft's own Windows Phone and Windows 8, but Apple? Android? Yammer is there for all of them.

Similarly, a great deal of unnecessary angst goes into corporate fears around aging users and their perceived resistance to enterprise social. Interestingly, most of these "aging users" are very bright information workers. They didn't stop talking to their kids and grandkids when those people started sharing pictures and thoughts on Facebook -- they went there to look and to listen.

Yammer's interface takes a lot of its navigation and real estate clues from Facebook, arguably for the simple reasons that it's known and it works (whether or not they'll admit it, but that's academic at this point). Familiarity breeds usability, as we've said before in this space, and that has surely played a role in Yammer adoption (which evidence says is growing strong).

The third lesson that enterprise social networks can take from Facebook is that of monetizing the model. It had to happen eventually -- if your consumer product isn’t profitable, eventually the capital runs out (and someone has to pay for all of those servers). Similarly, with enterprise social, if you can’t tie your social network directly to something the business cares about, the business will lose interest fairly quickly. 

Salesforce has done this extremely well with Chatter. Facebook had some fits and starts with monetization attempts that generally lacked success (remember the Facebook Marketplace?) and its fluctuating stock price showed it. Then it hit on the pay-for-premium page and advertisement model, and it’s stuck. The Facebook page -- with updates, social connectivity and check-ins enabled -- creates a steady and consistent revenue stream. That stream is growing, and now the stock is heading back up.

Similarly, the one indisputable piece of lightning that Salesforce has caught in their Chatter-shaped bottle is something they already owned: sales and customer data. A lot of people in an organization tend to care about customer experience and customer relationships -- we know from the research that Sales and Marketing are usually the earliest adopters of enterprise social. When a new pursuit or lead needs to be socialized and shared with subject matter experts, Chatter is far more effective than email. And when a sales pursuit closes as a new win, people care; Chatter helps them learn about that and celebrate it. It’s not just conversation, it’s conversation that matters.

In the final analysis, enterprise decision makers should look at the false correlation of Facebook to MySpace and consider it a useful lesson learned. Don't ignore mobile -- you need it. Don't undersell baby boomers -- they're still a large audience, and more technically nimble than naysayers want to admit. And never, ever ignore the power of the almighty dollar.

Enterprise collaboration in this day and age requires mobile accessibility; I hear this from clients everywhere. It requires an easy engagement curve, too, because users of all ages are being expected to pick it up (in those increasingly rare cases where they haven't picked it up already). Facebook has those things, and Facebook isn't dying any time soon -- on the contrary, its outlook is improving. And good collaboration tools are still taking some cues from Mr. Zuckerberg's increasingly ubiquitous juggernaut.

In this at least, the future of enterprise collaboration can very confidently follow in the footsteps of the consumer market. The future is here today. I know it's a painful cliché, and I know that after all of the above is explained, it looks obvious. But the best tools are often the most intuitive, and the best predictions -- though dull in hindsight -- are usually the ones that are easiest to make.

Title image by Olena Zaskochenko (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Rich on social business in (R)Evolution: The Past, Present and Future of the Social Enterprise

Title image by Olena Zaskochenko (Shutterstock).