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Few people reach productivity nirvana easily … or often. People want options. So options they have received. In fact, the options have grown to such an extent in many cases that it is getting difficult for people to easily navigate all the apps and services at their disposal.

Are options bad? Not necessarily. Is confusion bad? Absolutely. Are they related? Maybe. 

It depends on several factors, such as the digital proficiency of the users, the amount of guidance they’ve received, and of course the quality of that guidance.

There are many more reasons why users might be confused on which apps they should use for what purposes and how. But if you provide a bunch of options and either don’t provide guidance or don’t provide adequate guidance, you are going to have what I’ll call a fragmented ecosystem for communication and collaboration. 

Here are three signs, or symptoms, of a fragmented ecosystem.

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1. Shadow Comms

Everyone’s heard of Shadow IT: it’s when non-IT folks procure and start using tech services, primarily of the cloud variety. Sometimes the IT team knows about these, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes when they find out it is too late to stop or effectively control.

Shadow Comms is when users are using tools outside of those provided to communicate with one another and get work done. It’s basically the communication and collaboration niche of Shadow IT. There are a few reasons why Shadow Comms might be in play in your organization.

Perhaps IT hasn’t provided any tools for users to easily communicate or collaborate beyond traditional channels like email and the intranet. In this situation, the organization hasn’t kept up with modern ways of working and users — often led by newer employees that come from places with modern tools — go find cloud solutions that meet their needs.

In some cases, maybe IT has provided tools. However, those tools are old and out of date. Too many organizations operate as if in a time warp where their users are subjugated to using decades-old applications that aren’t mobile, that don’t sync data across devices, that aren’t accessible off the corporate network, and generally have very poor user experiences based on antiquated designs. Again, these legacy tools don’t meet their needs, so they go out and procure solutions that will on their own.

Maybe the tools are acceptable, but people aren’t allowed to have fun and just socialize on them. Strict rules prescribe what is allowed and what isn’t. In these types of environments, it's common to see a process stand in the way of communities or groups forming — even when they are for legitimate business-oriented reasons. This creates a burden — not necessarily a strenuous one, but one that is avoided all the same — on the end users to prove they need the app or service. A lot of times users don’t want to go through that trouble. In fact, they'll go through more trouble to make something non-sanctioned work.

What kind of apps are really easy for Shadow Comms? Anything made by Facebook (i.e., Facebook, FB Messenger, WhatsApp, Workplace by Facebook), Slack, WeChat and more depending on where you are and what is popular. iMessages and plain old text groups are a couple more (yes, they are different). Think about the amount of work conversations and sharing that happens over texting or a built-in texting service like iMessages. In a lot of organizations, it's significant.

What’s wrong with Shadow Comms? The general lack of security and integration with enterprise identity management systems is a huge red flag. Beyond that, the inability to make data and information discoverable across the enterprise makes Shadow Comms solutions unscalable. You are missing out on troves of data that can and should benefit others throughout the organization.

Related Article: Shadow IT Isn't Going Away – And That's a Good Thing

2. Conversation Fragmentation

A lack of scale and enterprise discoverability within a workplace leads to what I’ll call “conversation fragmentation.” Simply put, conversation fragmentation is when conversations are happening across a multitude of applications and services that aren’t integrated and don’t talk to each other. Conversations live only in the silo where they were created. I suppose this is just a different way to say that it creates information silos, albeit with a communication-centric spin.

The problem with conversation fragmentation is … well, I hope very self-evident. If users have a bunch of different places where collaboration with their coworkers takes place, it makes it difficult for them to remember where they had a particular conversation or where they should go to start a new topic. In many instances where a range of competing options are available, users will undoubtedly form preferences. That means everyone must keep track of everyone else’s communication preferences. Who uses system A? Wait, does so-and-so use X or Y? That is just an unnecessary mental toll to put on end users. This can quickly lead to our next symptom.

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3. Collaboration Paradox

The collaboration paradox is the more tools we have for collaboration, the less connected we become. Unfortunately, many organizations and their users find themselves inflicted with the collaboration paradox. It is a blessing and a curse … or maybe a blessing that turned into a curse. I am a proponent of multiple tools and have written several blogs to that end. However, I am not an advocate for overlapping tools that are not positioned in a way to have clear use cases for end users.

For example, I think there's a place for both Yammer and Teams within an organization. Yammer is for large-scale, open discussions across the entire organization and the landing point for communities of practice, interests and association. Teams is for smaller-scale, targeted conversations and collaboration around either goal or objective oriented workflows. Yammer for broad discussion and discovery. Teams for targeted work collaboration. This guidance on how to use these two tools must be communicated and provided to end users or they will get confused and frustrated.

As another example, let’s say you allow end users to use their choice of either Slack or Teams for workstream collaboration. No explanation of when to use one or the other is provided and training is purely on a feature level. In this instance, most users will inevitably need to learn and use both products even though they function very similarly and have many overlapping capabilities (although the gap is widening in interesting ways). This choice, while maybe spun as an advantage for end users, really becomes a negative experience that stifles adoption and subsequent behavior changes toward more modern ways of working.

The whole situation becomes draining and users are likely to just fall back on traditional ways of working (i.e., using email for anything and everything), thwarting any efforts to change behaviors and enable increased productivity and efficiencies.

Related Article: Don't Know Which Microsoft Collaboration Tool to Use? You're Not Alone

Is Your Ecosystem Fragmented?

Are you seeing any of the above symptoms in your organization? If you are, you need to take steps to address them as they are indicative of broader issues with the vision, goals and design of your digital workplace. Yes, design. 

A well-functioning digital workplace ecosystem will have undergone thoughtful and careful design before deployment. The design should take into account the vision and goals as well as ample user involvement and feedback. After all, you aren’t setting up a digital workplace for yourself — the digital workplace is to help workers in your organization do their best work.