Microsoft Teams has 20 million users. Slack has 12 million users. That’s a lot of people using collaboration/teamwork software. And the numbers keep going up. 

Will either of these players conquer the mass market? Well, it depends. Let’s take a deeper look at the state of the collaboration market to see where we're headed.

What Is Collaboration/Teamwork Software?

Collaboration/teamwork (we'll use collaboration from here) products incorporate a broad range of offerings. Basically, collaboration products help knowledge workers to team up in real-time to work on shared tasks, like managing customers, writing a contract or developing a new product. Typical collaboration product functionality includes instant messaging/chat, group conversations, co-editing of documents, joint access to a shared document repository, meeting and event calendaring, and sometimes remote meeting facilitation through videoconferencing and screen sharing.

What's Old Is New Again

To anyone new to the collaboration space, the Microsoft Teams vs. Slack smackdown may seem like a struggle to gain first-mover status in a cutting edge technology contest. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, collaboration products have been available in their current form since the 1980s. Along the way, numerous attempts to capture the market by boutique vendors, as well as industry giants such as Novell, IBM and Microsoft, have largely failed.

Why have these tools, whose value seems so obvious, failed to catch on over the last 30 years? And is there anything different with Microsoft Teams or Slack?

Before we address questions, let’s take a quick stroll down the collaboration history lane to see how we got to now.

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A Brief History of Collaboration Tools

Computing pioneer Douglas Engelbart introduced the notion of computer-based collaboration in the 1960s when he predicted computer-based tools would one day help researchers share information through what he called "parallel communications." But in those early days, computing power and networking infrastructure were not adequate to provide even basic services, let alone real-time collaboration.

By the 1980s, computer networks began to emerge and connecting geographically remote workers became a reality. Academics began to explore the field, originally dubbing it "computer-supported cooperative work," and later "workgroup computing," "collaborative computing" and "groupware." At this stage, most work was experimental.

It was only in the 1990s, when the internet was opened up to commercial entities, when ethernet and IP networks became industry standards, and when high-speed remote-leased lines and ISDN links became readily available, that practical collaboration tools began to take shape. With these key technology hurdles licked, modern collaboration products from IBM, Novell and Microsoft emerged in the form of products like Lotus Notes and Groupwise.

As these products rolled out, researchers were keen to investigate how organizations adopted them. In one typical study from 1992, MIT Management professor Wanda Orlikowski investigated the use of Lotus Notes in a large organization. She concluded that while the product worked, people weren’t ready for it. She wrote that "people's mental models do not understand or appreciate the collaborative nature of groupware." She concluded that "when the premises for groupware, namely, shared effort, cooperation, collaboration are counter-cultural to an organization's structure, the technology will be unlikely to facilitate collective use and value." Training and indoctrination were not enough to drive adoption, she noted that there "are few incentives or norms for cooperating or sharing expertise, groupware technology alone cannot engender these." 

What Orlikowski was arguing was that while the technology worked, the worker and organizational culture of the day was not collaborative in nature. People weren’t used to sharing information and companies’ hierarchical structures didn’t provide the necessary incentives to drive the changes in worker behavior needed to get value from these products. As we have seen time and again, technology cannot change the way people behave, if people themselves don’t want to change. This is where groupware largely failed. Organizations bought a solution figuring the technology would help them become collaborative only to find it doesn’t work that way.

Some collaboration products did see some success, becoming critical business platforms in large organizations. However, groupware as a genre did not captivate the market in the way that "must have" products like CRM and ERP did, by transforming the way business gets done.

Over the years, discrete components of collaboration tools have succeeded. Products like videoconferencing, IT telephony, and to a degree, even screen-sharing products have been widely available for many years. These products succeeded because they amplified existing communication patterns — they made it faster, cheaper, better — they didn’t engender new ways of cooperative working, like groupware products do.

Related Article: Bad Behavior Is Crushing Collaboration's Potential

Learning Opportunities

Don't Forget Email

In a way, one collaboration product did succeed: it's called email and it is still growing, with over 347 billion emails forecasted to be sent by 2023, an 18% growth over 2019. Email succeeded where collaboration tools failed partly because it is universal, and is standards-based. Two communicating parties don’t need to own the same product, they can use Outlook/Exchange, Gmail, Apple Mail, Yahoo! Mail or any other mail client — it’s all good. 

Related Article: Can Chat Over IMAP Challenge WhatsApp and Slack?

What – if Anything – Is Different This Time?

Other than a new category name — teamwork — is there anything different about today’s collaboration products? Unlike their predecessors, will these current products break through and reach mainstream adoption? 

I believe the answer is yes. There is a lot different about the situation today. Here are just a few examples:

  • The world is considerably smaller than it was in 1990. Today people routinely need to work (in real-time) with geographically remote colleagues, partners, suppliers and customers.
  • Technology has gotten cheaper. Today’s mobile devices are much more than cell phones: they are incredibly powerful computers that can generate highly sophisticated and engaging user experiences.
  • Connectivity is universal and bandwidth is cheap. People are always on, connected 24/7, fueling an expectation for real-time responses in every facet of our lives. This expectation spills over to how we do business. For the first time, email seems incredibly slow compared to other communications options.
  • Present-day collaboration tools are cloud-based, which promote a bottom-up grassroots adoption model. Unlike in the 1990s, it is no longer necessary to deploy collaboration software on a corporate server and roll it out to workers manually. Today, even small departments can subscribe to cloud-based collaboration services and communicate via a browser or mobile device, without any involvement from the corporate IT department.
  • The generation entering today’s workforce aspire to use cutting-edge technology to get work done, and today’s new shiny collaboration tools fit that bill.

Related Article: Is Your Collaboration Hub Removing Friction?

Will Collaboration Stick This Time?

Despite the astounding number of Microsoft Teams and Slack users, we are still in the early adopter phase of the market, with only about 10% of the addressable market actively using the products.

With all the positives going for it, one would think that adoption of collaboration tools is a foregone conclusion. Yet doubts remain:

  • Today’s leading products are proprietary. Using them is contingent on adopting a vendor’s proprietary platform. As such, competing products do not interoperate. When you pick a product, you become locked into that vendor’s technology stack and cloud. Even with all the promise of APIs and plugins, the inevitability of vendor lock-in is a given.
  • Today’s collaboration tools do not easily enable inter-organizational collaboration. You can of course, add partners, customers and suppliers to your collaboration cloud. But in this case, all the data (conversations, documents, meeting details) reside within your own tenant. You partner has no access to it when your relationship terminates. Unlike email, where both parties retain a copy of all correspondence and interactions, collaboration tools store all their data in one of the party's clouds. Until this nut is cracked, email will remain an important communication channel, impeding the penetration of the new collaboration tools.
  • While we're on the topic of email, the relationship between the email server and the collaboration platforms is currently undefined. Maintaining an email repository and a collaboration platform repository is inefficient and makes it difficult for workers to find important information later.

So, what’s it going to be? Will collaboration tools finally gain mainstream adoption? Or will this just be the next chapter in the chronicles of a perpetually "just out of grasp" technology?

I believe this time truly is different. I believe vendors will find ways to incorporate email into the mix by adding all data artifacts to a common enterprise data graph. The industry will come up with ways to bridge interoperability issues or it will fragment into large islands of vendor blocks. And finally, the problem of data ownership is a relatively simple technical fix, once the business issues are ironed out. So expect to see these collaboration tools coming soon to a mobile device near you.

Related Article: Collaboration Is a Tool, Not an End Goal

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